Vice Admiral Richard F. Whitehead would create an immediate legacy in the U.S. Navy and American history with his plan to train WWII pilots on the shores of Lake Michigan. He is best remembered for a single, revolutionary idea that shaped the course of WWII—the U.S. Navy bring planes to Chicago's Navy Pier.
Born in 1894 in Fall River, Massachusetts, Whitehead enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1912 at the age of 18, eager to serve his country. He saw extensive duty in WWI, fueling what would be a long career with the Navy. WWI quickly came to a close, but with WWII looming on the horizon, Whitehead began to realize that something had to change.
In 1941, the Navy knew that the need to train pilots for aircraft carrier takeoffs and landings was paramount to the war at hand. Intelligent and innovative, then-Commander Whitehead and civilian John J. Manley suggested something radical: to train pilots on the waters of Lake Michigan.
Initially, the idea to refit lake cruisers into makeshift aircraft carriers gained little traction. However, after the attack on Pearl Harbor later that same year, the proposal was fast tracked by Admiral Ernest J. King, Chief of Naval Operations, and the plan was set in motion. True to Whitehead's plan, the Navy purchased the Seeandbee and the Greater Buffalo, two luxury side-wheel cruisers, and refit them both into aircraft carriers. Due to the unconventional origins of the ships, the flight decks were much shorter than a traditional aircraft carrier. This left very little room for error, but it also meant increased efficiency and success when the pilots worked with true carriers. Historians would later say that these pilots “were the top guns of 1943.”
The plan was an unparalleled success. Training from Navy Pier meant complete protection and safety from enemy submarines. It meant that none of the Navy's aircraft carriers needed to be pulled from the lines to help with training. It meant that 18,000 pilots were qualified in Chicago, including future president George H. W. Bush, and it meant an essential advantage in winning WWII.
Vice Admiral Whitehead served in the Navy until his retirement in 1956. He moved to Chicago and spent the rest of his days in the industrial field, applying the same intelligence and innovation that changed the outcome of a war. He passed away on March 11, 1993, at the age of 99, but his contribution to WWII continues to live on throughout history.