USS Midway Museum in San Diego

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USS Midway Museum in San Diego, California

A historic U.S. aircraft carrier, now moored in San Diego, California, as a museum showcasing the on-board life and history of aircraft carriers is worth visiting

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.

Side of the USS Midway
The USS Midway is 1,001 feet long (over 3 football fields) and 258 feet wide.

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.

Eating deck at USS Midway
Outdoor eating and sitting space at Hangar Deck level

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.

Aircraft on USS MIdway Flight Deck

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.

View of San Diego Harbor from USS Midway Museum Flight Deck
View from the Flight Deck

Plans on USS Midway Flight Deck with San Diego downtown in background

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.

Equipment and hallway Below deck in USS Midway Museum in San Diego

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.

Scenes of men working Below Deck on USS Midway

Officer's cabin on USS Midway Museum
An officer’s cabin

Cooking and eating facilities aboard USS Midway

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.

Laundry and clothing care facilities aboard the USS Midway
43,000 pounds of laundry were done each week

Hotel Services on USS Midway Museum
Hotel Services

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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A historic U.S. aircraft carrier is now a museum showcasing life on board and the history of aircraft carriers. #SanDiego #California #museum #history #navalhistory
USS Midway Museum in San Diego: A historic U.S. aircraft carrier, now moored in San Diego, California, as a museum showcasing the on-board life and history of aircraft carriers is worth visiting.

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  1. Interesting review, Donna. I share your mixed feelings. It’s hard to reconcile the appreciation for the many tech and other innovative developments born out of the war industry. It’s good to move past biases and take in this type of museum, though, for a more rounded view of history and how a culture views that history.

  2. I feel the same way about history and wars so visiting a battleship is never high on my list. Based on your review this one sounds pretty interesting so maybe I’ll give it a try next time I’m in San Diego.

  3. I feel the same way about war as you do. The fact that so many places have relics of war as major tourist attractions says something important, even if horrifying, about the human condition, in every age, in every culture. Thus, I don’t shy away from visiting these places. I have visited several aircraft carriers and destroyers. As you describe, they are war fighting town/machines, mostly populated by VERY young men. You’ll find some women these days, but it is still mostly young men.

  4. I also feel the same discomfort with the things we create for war. At the same time, it is fascinating how these aircraft carriers worked, and how so many young men lived on board. It seems hard to fathom without seeing it, so perhaps it contributes to our understanding of history.

    1. Cindy, I definitely found the inside look fascinating. I think it is important to look at all aspects of history and make sure you’re seeing a balanced context. From that perspective I’m glad I put aside my hesitation and toured the carrier.

  5. Have been in San Diego many times but never toured USS Midway. Thanks for your detailed description. Now I definitely don’t have to go anymore!

    1. Carol, I’m glad I could make you feel as if you toured the carrier with me. I tried to include enough to give a good sense of what the experience is like, but there is so much more to see than what I’ve highlighted.

  6. I’m the same way when it comes to war history, I tend to tune out too. This Midway museum looks interesting though and l would have enjoyed it. I echo your sentiments. Not sure why we love destruction so much.. 🙁

    1. Kemkem, I think you’d enjoy visiting the museum. It sounds as if you’d be struck with some of the same feelings I had.

  7. Like you, I have a bit of an aversion to anything connected with warfare and military history. I would have found the bits about how people actually lived the most interesting.

    1. Karen, it was the way people lived that I found most interesting. There were moments when I thought I could have lived on that ship and other times I thought “no way”.

    1. Doreen, this was my first trip to San Diego. I liked it – there is still so much I need to go back and see.

  8. Great to know about the USS MIdway Museum. The hubby and I would love to tour sometime. I actually toured an aircraft carrier, the Bon Homme Richard, way back in the 1960s when my brother was in the Navy based in San Diego. It was amazing to see the quarters and facilities. And it was thrilling to watch the ship (with my brother aboard) head out to sea.

    1. Cathy, touring a working aircraft carrier with such a personal connection would be memorable. It would be interesting to see how the Midway Museum compares to those memories.

  9. I agree with you and your other readers that it can be difficult to relive the history of our wars. But I do feel it necessary to learn from our history and pray that we don’t make the same mistakes again.

    1. Sue, I agree. We don’t seem to often learn from our mistakes – maybe we forget too readily.

  10. I’ve been to San Diego many times but have not visited the USS Midway. How unique to host the museum in a historic aircraft carrier! I’ll have to check it out next time.