The views from the charthouse of the USS Midway (CVB/CVA/CV-41)—if you were lucky enough to be standing near a porthole—were spectacular. Facing toward the city, you could see new skyscrapers could be seen rising under the booms of gantry cranes. Down the flight deck, past the visitors milling about and the two officer retirement ceremonies, the USNS Waters (T-AGS-45) belched out smoke as she got underway from bustling North Island while the huge transfer dock USNS John Glenn (T-ESD-2) performed a delicate ballet with a tugboat to maneuver past the port security barriers and into her berth.
But all this was all lost on the Quebecer in one tour group. Deep in thought, focused entirely on the plotting and sighting equipment laid out in front of him, he couldn’t make himself understood. The tour guide, pointing to the plot showing the Midway leaving Yokosuka, explained how sightings would be made using sextants of prominent landmarks as she moved her way down the channel and out to sea.
“Sextant, c’est ce qu’on appelle!”
The guide had answered his question, and the man beamed now that he could articulate his thoughts. It’s not easy being a tour guide on board the Midway, where visitors speaking what must have been a dozen different languages throng the carrier’s decks and passageways. More than a million visitors a year from around the world come to see the carrier docked on San Diego’s waterfront, and for good reason—this museum offers what must be one the most immersive and engaging experiences available on board any museum ship.
Navy ships have a large presence in San Diego, but none so much, both symbolically and often literally, as the Midway. When she was commissioned in September 1945, she was the largest ship afloat—a record she held for a decade. She had been designed for a war that already had been won. But the Midway was a marvel of engineering. Her design permitted her and other carriers in her class to field the Navy’s first nuclear-capable bombers—the P2V Neptune and the AJ Savage—in the late 1940s and 1950s primarily in the Mediterranean. Extensive refits in the following decades altered her shape considerably, giving her, among other major changes, an angled flight deck, and allowing her to continue serving through the Vietnam War and Operation Desert Storm. When she was decommissioned in 1992, she had served for 47 years—an unprecedented feat for an aircraft carrier.
Since the USS Midway Museum’s opening in 2004, dedicated staff and volunteers have transformed the ship into an engrossing experience well worth the $20 admission fee. The Midway offers a glimpse into the spaces and places visitors won’t see much of on other museum ships—the laundry, the dental offices, the metal shops, the engineering spaces. These compartments are not accessible to everyone, unfortunately, owing to the steep ladders and climbs through narrow hatchways necessary to reach some of them. But it is not just getting into the spaces that makes the experience worthwhile—it is the painstaking detail that volunteers, staff, and donors have poured into these areas to bring them to life.
In the ship’s pharmacy, for example, a mannequin technician carefully labels and dispenses medications from the storeroom’s fully stocked shelves, filled with vintage containers. Next door, a “dentalmannequin” at his workbench puts the finishing touches on a dental plate, while down the passageway an unfortunate patient groans in pain as his teeth are drilled out for fillings. In the living spaces, other mannequins wistfully pine over letters and photos from home, and the details of everyday life greet the visitor, right down to the candy bars in the ship’s store.
Of course, live museum staff and volunteers can be found throughout the ship as well. Other highlights include the officer and enlisted messes, the recently opened combat information center (which is fully lighted and mann[equin]ed), the engineering control center, and engine room, where one can look right down into one of its high-pressure turbine engines. For those seeking a self-guided experience, the museum offers audio tour equipment that adds depth and richness through first-person accounts of veterans who served on board the Midway.
No visit to an aircraft carrier would be complete without seeing aircraft. The Midway’s hangar deck features several lovingly restored aircraft representing the Battle of Midway, for which this carrier is named, through her early deployments, such as an F4U-4 Corsair. Visitors more interested in hands-on activities have their choice of several cockpit sections to sit in and explore as well as several flight simulators to experience. The wooden blades of the museum’s HO3S-1 Dragonfly helicopter under restoration next to the museum’s SNJ-5 Texan are a fascinating sight.
The Dragonfly itself is up on the Midway’s flight deck, joined on the carrier by more than 20 different types of aircraft representing those that operated off the carrier while she was in commission. What is particularly refreshing is that museum visitors can get close to the aircraft, since in most cases there are no barriers impeding a full-around view. In some instances, like in the HH-46 Sea Knight helicopter and the T-2C Buckeye trainer, visitors can board them, a rare treat.
Situated at the Navy Pier, the Midway is conveniently located next to the downtown business district and the ferry to Coronado. If you find yourself in San Diego and can make the time, a visit to the Midway is absolutely worth your while. With the unmatched views and unforgettable experience, it is the best $20 one can spend in the city.