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A historic U.S. aircraft carrier is now a museum showcasing life on board and the history of aircraft carriers
The USS Midway is a historic aircraft carrier now permanently moored in San Diego Harbor and operating as a museum. The museum consistently ranks high on lists of the best tourist attractions in San Diego. It is the most visited naval ship museum in the world. There are more than 30 restored aircraft and helicopters on display. Visitors can explore the spaces where crew lived and worked.
Before visiting the USS Midway Museum, I was intrigued by the museum yet also unsure whether I’d enjoy it. I am interested in history, but tend to tune out when it comes to war history. Touring an aircraft carrier was not something that had ever made it to my list of things to do. The USS Midway is impressive in size and function. Everything is very well-done from a museum perspective. I found much of interest on board, but I still left with mixed feelings. Those mixed feelings are not related to the museum experience itself, but to the very nature of its subject.
The USS Midway was the longest-serving aircraft carrier in the 20th century. Its history is intertwined with significant events in American history. It became the first American carrier to operate in the sub-Arctic, served with the Atlantic fleet for ten years, saw its first combat deployment in 1965 in North Vietnam, was a floating base for Air Force helicopters evacuating refugees after the fall of Saigon in 1975, and served in the Arabian Gulf during Desert Storm in the early 1990s. The Midway was decommissioned in 1992 and remained in storage in Washington until 2003 when it was donated to the San Diego Aircraft Museum organization. The Museum opened in June 2004.
Visitors enter the museum at the Hangar Deck level. The first thing I did when I entered here was watch a 15-minute long film about the Battle of Midway, the battle for which the carrier was named. The Battle of Midway was a World War II decisive naval battle. It occurred six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The United States, thanks in part to advances in code breaking, preempted a Japanese planned ambush of one of its few remaining aircraft carriers. I knew nothing about the Battle of Midway before the film. As a Canadian, I’ve heard more about European battles, such as Dieppe and Juno. The story of the battle is well-told as it is re-lived through the eyes and voices of people who took part in it, but I was uncomfortable with the overall tone of the film and its glorification of war.
The Hangar Deck level also contains World War II vintage aircraft, helicopter history, flight simulators, exhibits about the Battle of Midway and the role of the carrier in saving refugees after the fall of Saigon, and a café and gift shop.
Over twenty-five restored fighters, bombers, and helicopters are on display on the 4.02 acre flight deck. In addition to seeing and learning about the aircraft, you can explore the bridge where the carrier is steered and the Captain oversees flight operations. You also get great views of downtown San Diego and the harbour.
Below Deck is the area of the ship I found most interesting. It is here where daily life and work occurred. The ship housed 200 to 300 aviators and 4,200 to 4,300 others working so the aviators could fly. This is a population larger than many small towns. The average age of a sailor was 19.
The smell of metal and oil, life-size mannequins “working” in the cabins, and piped-in sounds like the clacking of a typewriter or the whir of engines created a feeling of actually being in the carrier during its service as I walked through the recreated spaces.
Ten tons of food were prepared each day. There were several different dining areas, from cafeteria style rooms to more elegant dining rooms for senior officers. When the ship was docked in port, dinner and movie nights might be scheduled where officers could bring their girlfriends on board for dinner.
During day-to-day operations, civilian contractors and dignitaries stayed aboard the USS Midway, sometimes for a single night, sometimes for as long as six months. A Hotel Services Office assigned staterooms, provided linens and a few personal items, and collected payment.
There were also hospital and dental services, a barbershop and a chapel on board. The ship was in essence a self-contained town. A display in one room highlighted the history of all U.S. aircraft carriers.
The original cost of building the USS Midway was $85.6 million. Refurbishments over the years cost many more millions. Its average monthly payroll was $42 million.
I left the museum with a new respect for both the engineering accomplishments and the personnel who create and keep this type of ship running, but I also felt a bit unsettled. In spite of its role in rescuing Saigon refugees, all of the money and effort expended on the aircraft carrier was ultimately for the purpose of war. If we as humans can accomplish so much and afford to spend billions of dollars on war, why can’t we use our minds and money to feed and take care of each other?
The USS Midway Museum is open daily from 10 am to 5 pm with the last admission at 4 pm. The Museum recommends at least three to four hours onboard and I would agree with that. There is a lot to see. Same day re-entry is allowed. Active duty military, reservists, law enforcement and firefighters get in free with valid id. There is a discount for retired military personnel. Audio guides are available in six languages. Volunteer docents throughout the ship provide additional information and stories about life aboard the USS Midway.
Wear comfortable shoes. The ship is big. There is elevator service between the three deck levels (Below Deck, Hangar, Flight Deck), but there are many areas, particularly Below Deck, with spaces accessible only via stairs.
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