Belle Isle's retired ships

The J.T. Wing lies grounded on the Canadian side of Belle Isle at the current site of the Dossin Great Lakes Museum.

If you were a kid in Detroit during the 1950s, chances are you replayed scenes from World War II by scrambling down the conning tower of a U.S. Navy submarine parked near the bridge to Belle Isle. Or you crossed to the other side of the island where you could climb aboard a grounded three-masted schooner and imagine you were a pirate captain marauding the seven seas.

The USS Tambor, a 307-foot submarine docked near the bridge on the Detroit side behind the Naval Armory, often opened on Saturdays to allow kids to climb down the hatch, peer through the periscope and ask the sailor trainees all sorts of questions.

On the Canadian side of the island, the J.T. Wing, an old wooden three masted sailing schooner, sat on dry land, making it easier for landlubbers to explore her. The Wing, 160 feet long with a 33-foot beam, was built in Nova Scotia in 1919 as the J.O. Webster for the East African mahogany trade. It weighed 373 tons with three towering 110 foot masts meant for ocean sailing. In 1920 she was engaged to move lumber between Florida and Maine, although rumor held that her holds were more likely filled with rum than logs during prohibition. It was said she served as mother ship to a fleet of smaller rum-runners.

In 1935 she entered the Great Lakes to move pulpwood. The following year two Detroit sailing enthusiasts, J.T. Wing Jr., president of J.T. Wing & Co., and company manager Grant H. Piggott, bought and renamed the schooner to serve as a training vessel for young sea scouts. They wanted to share their love of the lakes with a new generation and “give the boys a chance to enjoy themselves and learn sea scouting first hand.”

Though stripped of its armaments and propellers the Tambor still served as a grim reminder of its deadly prowess during World War II — its conning tower still bore the sub’s wartime record: 26 enemy ships.

      “The boys of Detroit have never had the opportunity to learn sea scouting by actually being on a ship, especially on a boat of this sort,” Piggott said. “They ought to have the time of their lives on a real ship.”

Along with a group of supporters, they formed a nonprofit group called the Great Lakes Sea Scout Training Ship and planned four annual summer cruises for about 100 boys each trip. The ship cost $10,000 and $10,000 to refit it. With a permanent crew of three sailors, 12 officers, a cook and a doctor, the ship made its first voyage June 18, 1940.

Capt. George Fisher outlined the trip for the Sea Scouts, a division of the Boy Scouts. The ship would sail from Detroit to Port Huron then to Detour Passage. The Coast Guard patrol boat Rush from Marquette would tow them up the St. Mary’s River to Sault Ste. Marie where a parade would greet them. From there to Whitefish Bay on Lake Superior, then to Isle Royale for a few days. Then back back through the St. Mary’s River to Lake Michigan, disembarking in Holland July 1. A different group of scouts would then sail to Chicago.

The J.T. Wing sails under the Ambassador Bridge during one of her Sea Scout training trips.

      Detroit sent about 50 scouts, others came from Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana and outstate Michigan.

During a later voyage in August that year, 100 scouts found themselves aground for nearly 18 hours near Charlevoix. Fortunately, lookouts at Grays Reef Light had spotted their plight.

“We got her afloat just about dark,” said Capt. O. Smith of the rescue ship. “If she had any damage on her bottom, it wasn’t to be seen. We left her in good shape, and she went through the Straits under her own sail.”

However, worried parents were unnerved by radiograms they received from their sons: “Whole ship OK, ran aground at 11:30 p.m, wish you were here.”

The ship carried 2,000 scouts on five trips in 1940 and several in 1941, allowing the kids to dream of swashbuckling movie pirates swinging on the rigging as they learned the strange and complex art of sailing.

With the onset of World War II, the ship lay idle in Marine City until 1943 when a shortage of ships caused the Chippewa Lumber Co. to buy the vessel to carry lumber again.

In 1946 the ship was donated to the Detroit Historical Society to be used as a Great Lakes museum on Belle Isle. On July 24, 1948, she arrived at the island, which was to become her final resting place.

She was hoisted up to dry land where for eight years she was visited by the curious as she slowly rotted away. Condemned as unsafe, she was burned to the ground Nov. 4, 1956, in front of a crowd of 6,000.

Detroit Police Insp. Harry Reeves pumps bullets into the rotted hulk of the Wing to help it burn.

      To prepare for the fire, firemen pumped 100,000 gallons of water from the ship’s bilge which took three days. They then threw in about 100 old tires to make the fire hot enough to burn the waterlogged 12-inch square beams. Then they soaked the hulk with 2,000 gallons of fuel oil.

Firemen stood by with their hoses ready as police marksmen Insp. Harry Reeves and Patrolman Louis Begin fired bullets into the Wing until she boiled into a mass of flame, sending heavy clouds of black smoke into the leaden sky.

Many objects from the Wing reside now in the Dossin Museum, built on the site where the ship rested.

On the other side of the island, the retired submarine USS Tambor also served to train young sailors, possibly even a few old Sea Scouts.

Despite appearances, the sub did not violate the long Canadian-U.S tradition of an unarmed border. It had sunk more than 100,000 tons of Japanese shipping during World War II, but on its retirement to training service its armament and much of its other equipment were removed.

The 307-foot, 24,000-ton Tambor had four 16-cylinder engines but rarely left its dock behind the Brodhead Naval Armory at 7600 Jefferson, next to Gabrial Richard Park.

On June 12, 1957 an article in the News detailed a trip by sixth graders from Van Zile school to visit the submarine with their teacher, Mr. Ester Nosanchuk. In groups of 10 the students crawled down through the hatch.

“When it was my turn to climb down the ladder I was almost scared to death,” Marcia Lind said. “But we all got down all right and we were on our way.”

The kids’ first question: “Where’s the Refridgerator?” got the usual reply, “You’re standing on it,” as it lay beneath the floor.

The Tambor cuts through the seas in this publicity photo from General Motors Cleveland Diesel Engine ëivision in early 1941, well before the U.S. entry into the war.

      The class learned that the ship had 10 torpedo tubes, six forward and four aft and that it could carry 26 torpedoes or 44 mines.

“Torpedoes,” said Marguerite Henson, “cost about $12,000 apiece and are 21 feet long and weigh two tons. Navy men call them fish,” she said.

Leonard Laskowski said, “Our guide told us that the Tambor could travel 25 miles an hour on the surface and 16 miles an hour submerged. On the surface it runs on diesel power, but when submerged it uses batteries. It cannot run on diesel power underwater because of deadly exhaust gases. Some subs have snorkels that draw in fresh air, but the Tambor doesn’t have any.”

Gary Niehaus learned that the Tambor could submerge in 28 seconds and could go down 400 feet. The sub takes water into flood tanks to submerge and pushes the water out to go up.

“We saw all kinds of buttons and instruments in the engine room,” said Barbara Krankota. “There is one part that is called the Christmas Tree. It has red and green lights. The lights tell whether it is safe for the sub to submerge. Red means there is some part in the ship that is not working properly.”

The Wing on her last voyage to her final resting place on Belle Isle in 1948.

      “The Tambor has many rooms and they are all little ones,” Donna Wolford said. “One room is only one-fourth as large as our classroom but 36 men could sleep there if necessary.”

“Submarine men must be experts at their jobs and must know how to handle other jobs, too,” said Carol Marvel. “When a sumbarine is on duty it usually has a crew of 72. The men must be well mannered and have good tempers. They must be in good health, mentally and physically.”

Michael Sral learned about the machine that makes salt water drinkable.

The commanding officer Lt. H.W. Green told the class about the part the Tambor played in the historic Battle of Midway.

But back to the refrigerator, Judith David noted that it holds seven tons of frozen food, enough for 90 days, and also a cool room for eggs and vegetables.

The class thanked the crew and presented Officer Green with boxes of cakes and cookies.

“I’m glad we have submarines patroling our waters,” Frances Otway told Green. “If we didn’t most of us would worry.”

On Sept. 10, 1958 at 10 a.m., ceremonies officially marked the end of the Tambor before sending it to the junk yard.

The Tambor’s crew of “ship’s keepers,” sent by the Navy to preserve the sub, lines up on the deck for inspection prior to opening up for visitors.

(This story was compiled using clip and photo files from The Detroit News Library.)