U.S.S. Midway (CVA-41)

My ultimate Navy home was docked at the southeast terminus of "E" Street. I would occasionally go aboard, but what I saw didn't jive with my romantic, Star Trek-inspired image of how a naval vessel should look. Outside, scaffolding was everywhere to the extent that the ship itself was only partially distinguishable. At first there weren't many sailors to be seen on board, just civilian contractor yardbirds. Besides scaffolding one could see electric cables, pneumatic and acetylene gas tubes and hoses crisscrossing, intertwining and trailing off in all directions. Fumes from welding torches permeated the air as did the rat-a-tat-tat of pneumatic power tools. Drills hummed, saws whirred and screamed, welders flashed and hissed, while yardbirds yelled to each other above the din. Within the hull, wending through the ship's choked passageways, ran more of what enmeshed and befumed the outside. Making ones way into the innermost areas (such as the ship's bare Radio Communications Center) was a strenuous and even dangerous feat. It was also easy to get disoriented for those of us not used to finding our way inside the bowels of a vessel.

Captain Carroll adopted the ship nickname of U.S.S. Numero Uno to inspire us all to work hard and achieve the title of Number One in the fleet. Counterpoised to this morale booster was the yardbirds' deflating nickname of U.S.S. Neversail. Rumor had it that the flight deck had been engineered and built too large for what the ship could handle. This meant that she would capsize and sink, especially if the seas got very rough. Further rumors of impending disaster grew more numerous, vociferous and poignant as the ship neared time for its first sea trial.

Midway's flight deck overhang, as seen on January 10, 2004. Here, she is being turned after crossing San Diego Bay from North Island. Four C-tractors then backed her into Tuna Harbor, to be moored alongside the Navy Pier as the San Diego Aircraft Carrier Museum.

Some related descriptions:

U.S.S Midway's 1992 decommissioning
     
Midway returns to San Diego

  

Their predictions of doom still trailed through my mind as late as 1971. That year we hit our first major storm between the west coast of the continental United States and Hawaii.

  

Midway Modernization button

Button now part of Midway Museum Accession #2009.066

  

Former President Jimmy Carter marked the entire Midway Class for destruction. The Roosevelt was subsequently dismantled, cut up and sold as scrap metal. According to Humble, the Coral Sea and Midway were "...scheduled for phase-out by 1985." However, both ships were given a stay of execution by a change in Administration along with a change in policy. Consequently, they remained in the service of their country into the 1990s. The former would celebrate her forty-fifth anniversary in 1990, the latter its forty-seventh anniversary in 1992.

 

As it turned out, neither Coral Sea nor Midway would remain commissioned by the Navy beyond those fateful birthdays. Many additional carriers had put to sea since 1945, with each new carrier class outstripping older ones in military potential. Other factors also led to their being retired, such as the lessening of international, Cold War tensions with the introduction of "perestroika" by the Russians in 1989. Then in 1991 came the sudden breakup of what used to be called the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. By practical interpretation, these events brought about the end of the Cold War, resulting in major US military reductions of bases, ships, hardware and personnel.

 

The Coral Sea, like the Roosevelt, would be sold for scrap metal, but the Midway would ultimately find a new commission in the service of the city and citizens of San Diego.

It was said of the U.S.S. Nimitz (CV-68), namesake of a much later carrier class, that she was the "greatest floating structure ever created by man." Once upon a time the U.S.S. Midway (CVB-41) received a similar accolade. The "B" in CVB-41 stood for "big." The carrier class was named after her because her keel was laid first, by the Newport News Shipbuilding and Drydock Company on October 27, 1943, with her sister ships being the Franklin D. Roosevelt (CVB-42) and the Coral Sea (CVB-43). She was launched at Newport News on March 20, 1945, and commissioned in Portsmouth, Virginia, on October 27.

The Midway was distinguished as the first carrier to be constructed with an all steel flight deck. Though her bow was open, she received a closed, or "hurricane," bow in the mid-1950s. An article in the magazine "Naval Aviation News" acclaimed her as the "biggest, most formidable aircraft carrier the world ever had seen. . . .." When loaded she displaced 60,000 tons and was the first of the CVB Class. She measured 962 feet in overall length, including a 912-foot flight deck of "unpierced 3-and-one-half inch steel."

On November 7, 1945, the Midway set sail for the Caribbean on a 57-day shakedown cruise to ready carrier operations and develop shipboard teamwork. In March of 1946 she served as test bed for an important defense research project in Operation Frostbite. The purpose was to test carrier operations in frigid conditions off the Greenland coast. The next year, in September, she provided the launching base in the first firing of a rocket from a ship at sea. The rocket was a captured German V-2.

Nicknamed "Queen of the Seven Seas," the Midway had been in the US Atlantic Fleet during her first years. In August of 1954 she transferred to the Pacific's Seventh Fleet. Since her commissioning, carrier technology and plane launch requirements had drastically changed, especially with the growing use of jet powered planes. So the Midway put into the shipyard at Bremerton, Washington, in 1955 for her first major modernization, where soon she was decommissioned.

September of 1957 saw the Midway emerge from the Bremerton shipyard with an enclosed hurricane bow, steam catapults (used for launching planes from the forward flight deck under tremendous steam pressure), a new, angled flight deck, plus other structural changes. She was soon on her shakedown cruise in preparation for her first deployment with the Seventh Fleet.

The deployment began on August 16, 1958, after which the Midway spent the next seven years on the line in Westpac. In 1965, while operating with Task Force 77, her planes flew 11,900 sorties against Vietnam in the first year of concentrated American involvement.

 

Vietnam had been a land of contention for many years. The French had been driven out, and through the dubious wisdom of former Presidents Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy, we were stepping into the vacuum left behind. President Kennedy wanted Vietnam as a proving ground to display our national resolve in keeping the world free for democracy. Understandably, he didn't fathom the resolve of the North Vietnamese to unify the country, or, if he did, he didn't see the possibility as anything that would be insurmountable.

 

Our official writ of intrusion finally was forged on August 7, 1964, after reports that North Vietnamese gunboats had fired on US ships in the Gulf of Tonkin (also called "Yankee Station"). In response, the US Senate passed a resolution authorizing the President to "take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against the forces of the United States and to prevent future aggression." The next two presidents would interpret the Tonkin Gulf Resolution quite freely, justifying their growing intrusion into Vietnam affairs by its open-endedness. However, subsequent evidence revealed in a Congressional inquiry cast serious doubts on the authenticity of the facts as reported.

 

Things were heating up in the western Pacific, and Vietnam was becoming an American household word. The Midway was operating on Yankee Station, along with the Coral Sea, in April of 1965. Their planes, along with those of Marine Fighter Squadron 212 flying from the carrier Oriskany and other allied planes, engaged in attacking Viet Cong positions in Operation Rolling Thunder. The results obtained using carriers so impressed General Westmoreland that he requested one be permanently assigned to support ground troops in South Vietnam. At that time there were four carriers on Yankee Station. On May 16, one of these deployed to "Dixie Station" 100 miles southeast of Cam Ranh Bay. By early June a fifth carrier joined Task Force 77.

Just before the Midway left for the United States in 1965, her airwing killed the first three MiG-17s of the war. ("MiG," by the way, stands for Mikoyan-Gurevich). The first two were downed on June 17 by F-4 Phantom II fighters from her VF-21 squadron using radar-guided Sparrow missiles. The third was hit on June 20 by A-1 Skyraiders ("Spads") of VA-125. (Completing the circle, nearly a decade later Midway planes would be responsible for shooting down the last MiG of the war.) Then the Midway returned to her home port of Alameda, California in November. In February, 1966 she was decommissioned at Hunter's Point Naval Shipyard to undergo her second modernization, there-to-fore the most extensive ever completed on a naval vessel.

- - - - - -

I learned as a child that a person didn't love material objects, only people. I could only "like" something non-living. So I will say that I liked the Midway a lot. While aboard I didn't realize how attached to her I was becoming. It wasn't until recently that the cognition crystallized in my mind.

One splendid fruit resulting from the writing down of my navy memoirs has been the fact that the many complicated, inter-connected, inter-woven and sometimes subtle aspects of those four years are separating out. One of the most surprising "separating outs" has been my deep affection for the ship. Before entering the Navy, and after leaving it, I was never particularly attracted to ships or boats. Mild interest would describe my outlook in that direction. So the sentiments toward the Midway, for me, could be said to be unique. Admittedly, some memoir romanticism has amplified the feeling. Perhaps this subtle aspect needed a touch of present-time romanticism to inject it with enough life to be viewed on its own.

One thing is certain. While I was aboard no such feeling ever became obvious. The Midway was simply a part of a navy that was involved in a less-than-honorable and more-than-bloody war. In my scrapbook I wrote above her picture "She was a captivating mistress. She kept me for three years." Yet by "mistress" I meant least a lover and most a shrewish "keeper of the household."

I now can separate out my feelings toward the Midway. A host of memories come into view, both of her physical characteristics and of my latent sentiments toward her. The most overpowering of the latter seems the sense of security she imbued. No matter where in the Pacific we happened to sail, I never felt too far from home. We brought with us our own people, our own language, customs, cultures, and our own vices, both national and personal. Plus there was a steady stream of transportation and communication to and from the States whenever needed.

 

It might help in understanding the scope and breadth of life aboard an aircraft carrier if a person could see the ship as a one-fifth-mile-long chunk of the United States, cut off and afloat. On our chunk were nearly 5,000 men, each with specific duties, and each requiring the same morale considerations, material resources and life support facilities as due members of any ground unit. Vast amounts of food were needed, along with nearly constant supplies of munitions, plane and ship fuel, and equipage. In order for a "chunk" to function at all it had to rely on a continual train of support ships literally feeding it day and night. These ships made an iron-gray connection between each carrier task group and the nearest ally port.

My berth was my own, somewhat private living area. Even though I sometimes had to climb over waiting bombs to get from the berthing compartment to the head, I never felt my personal security was being unduly jeopardized. The atomic bomb rumored to be hidden in the ship's bowels didn't particularly bother me, either. At the time it seemed like these things should cause some sort of stress. They did in many of my comrades. Yet I was able to derive a kind of bliss from the Midway's proven stability and competent ambiance.

Physically she was impressive, as should be expected of an aircraft carrier, and I only had to look up to another ship once. That time we docked next to the U.S.S. Enterprise (CVN-65) [with the "N" in CVN standing for nuclear powered] at Alameda, and the flight deck of ol' 65 was several feet above our own. The Midway's magnitude kept us physically fit climbing her many ladders, walking her lengthy passageways, and keeping her entirety chipped, scraped, swabbed, cleaned, painted, waxed, polished, supplied and always in working order.

In turn she kept us fed and protected from all types of weather, got us to where we needed to go on time, allowed us to meet our obligations and fulfill our missions, provided the Navy and us with a well-earned sense of pride for many reasons, especially for her pliancy and adaptability, and, at least for me, fostered residual homeliness that increased the sense of security. Her flight deck, when not militarily in use, provided a playground/tanning beach/sports arena. Her many catwalks and outside accesses gave us ample opportunities to gaze at the many beautiful sights constantly exhibited by the Pacific and its islands.

Pride in ones ship is as old as sailing itself. It is wonderful to know after all these years that I, too, belong to the long list of mariners captivated by their "mistress." It is with some sense of loss that I wonder how much more I might have enjoyed and partaken of both the Midway and the Navy if Vietnam had not been the overriding consideration of the times.

The following is from my letter to Mom dated September 3:

 

"Things are progressing quite well now with the ship's crew getting organized. There are about eight Radiomen on board now made up of two chiefs, two lower ranking petty officers and four Radioman strikers. As it stands now we'll be moving aboard the Midway in January. I've been inside the ship a couple of times, and the living quarters are looking good. Also, the Communication Center is coming along quite well.

 

"I've been to Lake Tahoe with some of my friends, and at night we roughed it in a tent alongside the road. Besides driving through the Sierra Nevada mountains and swimming in Lake Tahoe, we drove around in Nevada and even took a two-hour horseback ride on the Ponderosa ranch of `Bonanza' fame. The country up there is fantastically beautiful, and the mosquito-free forests impressed me a great deal. You wouldn't believe the size of boulders lying along the roads and all over the mountains. You wonder what keeps them from toppling."

The trip to Tahoe was near the end of my friendship with those involved. The Tahoe group included Roberts, Evans, Johnson, Gebhardt and myself, and we took Gebhardt's car. Soon after, however, the number of Midway crew arrivals reached into the hundreds, then thousands, and our close little group dissolved as each man became absorbed into his respective rating assemblage.

The following is from my letter to Mom dated September 26:

 

"Things here are progressively getting more complicated and more shipshape. We are getting closer and closer to that fateful day of recommissioning, and spirits seem pretty high. I'm learning a great deal about the Radioman rating, though I'm not now exposed to the technical aspects. I've got two good chiefs, and the men I'll be working with, on the whole, will be stimulating associates. We haven't been involved with too much teamwork yet, in our department, and I can see a definite need for us to begin developing this.

 

"There are now six or seven hundred men. They're living in four different barracks, and more barracks are being obtained for later arrivals. All the barracks have new bunks, all new lockers, and all new tables. They are quite pleasant, and each has its own TV. Ours (building 508) has a color TV, since it was the first barrack used by Midway crew."

There was quite an overlap between ship's crew and shipyard military personnel during the first few months of my arrival. All of us just pitched in and did whatever needed doing. As time passed, and the ship's crew multiplied, more formal relations were forged between the Midway's PCO, Captain Carroll, and the commander of the shipyard. Things began to be more strict and more regulated (and "regulation") all around.

It was in October that I went to work at the shipyard's Communication Center. I replaced RM3 Till, who was needed back with the ship's on-base communications office. While at the Center I completed my BMR and rating practical factors required before taking the exam for Radioman third class petty officer, which I took on November 4.

There was a tremendous influx of crew during the latter months of 1969. Yet one by one I met the newly arriving Radiomen when they came to pick up or deliver Midway messages. One fellow who came by frequently was Newman, originally from Chicago. He and I soon became fast friends and chummed around together much of my remaining time on the Midway. He was an off-beat character and proud of it, so we had a lot in common.

My days at the NAVCOMSTA (Naval Communication Station) didn't pan out much usable experience for what I ended up doing on board the Midway. As it turned out, I was only at the shipyard Center to clean the decks (sweep, swab, wax, buff), carry anything heavy like paper for the Teletype machines, mimeograph copies of messages according to routings typed on them by the yardbird communications specialists, pigeonhole the copies into their respective message slots, hand them out to messengers from various ships and shipyard offices, and receive messages from them to be transmitted. It grew to be a mammoth job, though, as the Midway's demands on message traffic channels doubled weekly if not daily. However, liberty was always good, and I liked working three shifts, since I always got extra time off during shift changes. I was getting downright spoiled when word finally came that I would be leaving the TAD assignment and would be working exclusively for the Midway.

The following is from my letter to Mom dated January 8, 1970:

 

"Well, Mom, I told you that I would try to get leave in February, but I guess that's out of the question. It seems that many things will be happening in the next few months. So nobody wants to let me go. It may not be for several months that I'll be able to come home.

 

"I told you these next three things over the phone, but I'll repeat them here for clarity's sake. First, I have been TAD to the Communications Center at the shipyard for over two months and imagine I'll be working there until the Midway assumes her own radio watch. Second, the crew will move aboard on January 12, and I have already chosen my rack. The Radiomen quarters are square beneath the ship's forward crew's mess deck. Third, as of January 16 I will change from Radioman seaman striker to Radioman petty officer third class. This is a big step forward for me, both in pay and responsibility."

Copyright 1992, 1998, 2003Charles W. Paige

Continue on to A year of (s)training or Go back to Ship and Shore


Last modified: Saturday August 22, 2009

Jennie Paige at the helm on Lake Minnetonka, MNHome or Return to the top or Go to table of contents (non-frame)


Free counters provided by Honesty.com.