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World War II relic recovered from Lake Michigan

Waukegan- A World War II vintage aircraft thhas been sitting bottom Lake Michigan for past 65 years is raised set

Waukegan- A World War II vintage aircraft that has been sitting on the bottom of Lake Michigan for the past 65 years is raised and set to be restored. The plane an Eastern Aircraft FM-2 "Wildcat" crashed in Lake Michigan as part of pilot training exercises in December 1944. The pilot at that time was Ensign William forbes who survived the crash to fly again. The plane was raised at Larsen Marine in Waukegan bb A and T recovery made possible by a generous donation of Chuck Greenhill of Mettawa, Illinois. | Joe Cyganowski~For Sun-Times Media.

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Updated: February 6, 2013 1:56AM

WAUKEGAN ­— Seventy-one years after the attack on Pearl Harbor, a World War II relic returned from the unforgiving waters of Lake Michigan on Friday as recovery crews reeled in an Eastern Aircraft FM-2 Wildcat fighter that crashed during carrier-qualification training in December 1944.

“It’s a pretty inspiring thing to see an aircraft come out of the water after that many years,” said Chuck Greenhill of Mettawa, an aviation buff who financed the endeavor and was the first to sit in the waterlogged cockpit. “You think you’d get used to it, but you don’t. This is my second one (recovered), and it certainly means a lot.”

The Wildcat actually came ashore at Larsen Marine at Waukegan Harbor in two pieces, with its tail having been severed after it crashed while attempting to take off from the USS Sable. A crowd of more than 200 onlookers, including several World War II veterans, watched as the otherwise intact fuselage slowly settled onto a tarp. Greenhill reported that the stick was in place and the rudder pedals still worked.

Waukegan Harbor is no stranger to the ongoing efforts to locate and recover some of the estimated 200 Navy aircraft that either crashed or were dumped into Lake Michigan during wartime carrier training.

In 2009 alone, crews from Chicago-based A&T Recovery brought a Grumman F6F-3 Hellcat fighter and two Douglas SBD Dauntless dive bombers to Larsen, with the planes eventually working their way to museums.

The Sable was one of two converted sidewheel paddle steamers that served as makeshift carriers on Lake Michigan, with novice aviators — including a young George H.W. Bush — heading to and from Glenview Naval Air Station. In the case of Friday’s Wildcat, the Naval Aviation Museum Foundation reported that Ensign William Forbes was attempting his third takeoff from the carrier on the morning of Dec. 28, 1944, when the fighter’s engine failed, rolling it off the bow into 200 feet of water.

Forbes survived the accident, but passed away in 2008. Among those there carrying on the spirit of his generation was Richard Boomer of Waukegan, who served in the Navy as a corpsman attached to the 6th Marine Division on Okinawa.

“I’ve been out here for all these planes,“ said Boomer, who was joined by his daughter, Liz. “In the Navy, I saw these airplanes when I was on the ground — they would fly over us, and you’d see the Japanese fly over us, the kamikazes ... It’s history. It’s very interesting to me. I think I’ve photographed four of them down here.”

Other keen observers included members of Bring It Home, Glenview, a community-based effort aimed at establishing a naval museum and education center on three to five acres of the former air station, which has been largely redeveloped for residential and commercial use. Chairwoman Kirsten Bergin said the group hopes to secure a recovered aircraft for display to illustrate how Glenview “was truly pivotal in World War II.”

“We would love to have any Glenview Naval Air Station plane come back to Glenview, whatever plane it would be,” Bergin said, noting that the Waukegan Road station “trained more carrier pilots than any other airbase in the United States ­— 17,000. ... It’s incredible history.”

Greenhill, who recalled being a 5-year-old boy listening to the reports of the Pearl Harbor attack on his household radio, said he hopes the Lake Michigan recovery efforts can raise awareness about “an era that’s really been forgotten about that’s so significant in my life.”

“It’s so important for to have these airplanes available for the public to see so people can appreciate what happened back in this era,” Greenhill said. “If this thing laid in the lake, it would just be completely forgotten — it would be junk. And here we have the opportunity to make something really nice out of it. It will be in a museum for people to see for years and years to come, so I feel we’re preserving history.”

Greenhill added that while it’s unclear whether the Wildcat will end up in Glenview or the Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, Fla., “it’s not on the bottom of the lake, and that’s all I care about.”

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