Heroes on Deck
Weiss Physician Stars in New World War II Documentary About Lake Michigan Aviation Training
Weiss Urologist Herbert Sohn, MD, talks about his role in the World War II Lake Michigan training and how it influenced his life as a Chicago doctor
Few people know that in the dark depths of Lake Michigan, there are planes—more than 100 of them. They date back to World War II, when the United States Navy initiated a massive training program on the lake.
And while the planes are largely forgotten, one Weiss physician remembers them clearly. Urologist Herbert Sohn, MD, was part of the training program at Navy Pier and Great Lakes Naval Station. He stars in an upcoming documentary called Heroes on Deck: World War II on Lake Michigan.
The hour-long documentary premiers this week on WTTW, narrated by Journalist Bill Kurtis. It highlights the U.S. Navy’s innovative response after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. The Navy was desperate for pilots, and Commander Richard F. Whitehead proposed that they train on Lake Michigan, safe from enemy submarine attacks on the east and west coasts.
“I love Chicago and the fact that Chicago did all of this,” Sohn says. “We do a lot of things in Chicago that no one gives us credit for. We have a lot of firsts.”
Joining the War Effort—from Lake Michigan
Sohn was 17 years old at the time of the Pearl Harbor attack, and being of Jewish faith, he felt deeply passionate about the war.
“There was a lot of patriotism at that time,” Sohn says—and he wanted in.
The native New Yorker didn’t hesitate to join the war effort. He served for two years in the Navy and two years in the Marine Corps from 1945 to 1948, earning the title of Sergeant.
However, during his service, Sohn was never deployed overseas. Instead, he traveled to Illinois, where he trained recruits and worked on a top-secret project to prevent radar jamming on ships.
The Navy had converted two Great Lakes passenger steamers into aircraft carriers: the USS Wolverine and the USS Sable. They taught pilots to navigate their landings and take offs over the lake, dubbing the carriers “freshwater flattops.”
“We were the people on these ships working to prevent radar jamming. Our job was to keep them in good shape,” Sohn says.
From 1942 until the war’s end in 1945, more than 15,000 aviators trained at Lake Michigan, including George H.W. Bush.
“That is the reason we won World War II, because of the training of these pilots,” Sohn says.
In some cases, the trainings resulted in crashes and water landings, and that’s how the fighter planes and dive-bombers ended up at the bottom of the lake. So far, 40 of the aircraft have been recovered and brought to land.
The Heroes on Deck documentary sheds light on the importance of these forgotten planes. Sohn says he was excited to work with the Emmy-award winning producers over three months of shooting. The experience reminds him of why he chose to remain in Chicago even after the war ended.
“When I was stationed here, the people were so nice. That’s the reason I stayed. We have the nicest people in the world in Chicago,” Sohn says.
Since the war, Sohn has been busy—to say the least. He went on to become a urologist, and has worked at Weiss since 1960. “I’m the oldest one here in terms of time,” he says.
And it was during his wartime experience that he decided to become a physician. He developed a sore throat and after complications due to medication, he had to give up active duty until he fully recovered.
“That gave me the chance to hang out with doctors all day long. They were very nice people, and I got very intrigued with medicine,” Sohn says. After the war and his time in the reserves, he switched from pre-law to pre-med.
For his undergraduate degree, Sohn attended the University of Virginia, founded by Thomas Jefferson. “I figured that was a good place to start,” he says with a laugh.
He then returned to Chicago to attend the Chicago Medical School—a goal he’d set from his days on Lake Michigan. “When I came out to Chicago, I said I wanted to go to school out here.”
From there, Sohn interned at Bellevue in New York as well as Case Western. Initially, he had wanted to pursue cardiovascular surgery, but opted for urology by chance.
“That’s the thing about urologists, they’re nice people. You meet somebody nice, know nothing about urology, and then you end up becoming a urologist,” Sohn says.
In 1960, Sohn returned to Chicago—and this time he stayed for good. Besides his clinical work at Weiss, he also served as former Vice Chairman of the Board of Trustees for Rosalind Franklin University and is former President of the American Association of Clinical Urologists. Sohn has remained very active in politics, too, running for Congress and Mayor of Chicago in the 1980s.
Hear Sohn speak more about his World War II experience on Thursday, May 26 at 9 p.m. and Sunday, May 29 at 6 p.m. on WTTW Chicago. The documentary will be broadcast on 300 stations nationwide. Check local listings for additional dates and times.
For more about the Heroes on Deck documentary visit these links: