EPILOGUE

The Midway, after returning from Vietnam in early 1973, departed Alameda on September 11 of that year heading for Yokosuka, Japan. It was loaded down with ship's crew and that of Air Wing Five, plus the crew members' respective families. The ship also transported personal belongings including furniture and automobiles.

The Midway was part of the new Overseas Family Residency Program. This strategy effectively changed her home port from Alameda, California, to Yokosuka. Stationing the Midway in Japan was nothing if not ironic, since the Battle of Midway Island was the turning point against Japan of World War II's "War in the Pacific." [Since we were remembering Pearl Harbor, were we thus making Japan remember Midway Island?]

The Midway was present to help with Saigon's evacuation in late April-early May, 1975, collecting 3,073 refugees.1 For this she received the Navy Unit Commendation. She received another Navy Unit Commendation in 1984 as part of Battle Group Alpha in the Northern Arabian Sea. The United States was showing its determination to keep open the Strait of Hormuz despite the war between Iran and Iraq. In all, the Midway has spent most of the years since I left her sailing around the Middle East. While there, she has been present during nearly every incident of international concern.

The ship was badly damaged on June 20, 1990, when two explosions on board led to a fire that raged more than ten hours. The disaster was responsible for at least two deaths, several injuries and damage to the ship's hull. The news media made a major issue out of the incident, as it accented a growing list of Navy calamities. It was even speculated that the accident would lead to the ship's immediate retirement. Indomitably, a few months later Midway steamed to the Persian Gulf in response to the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait. There, she participated in both Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm.

In June, incidentally a year after her on board calamity, Midway was given a day's notice to depart for the Republic of the Philippines full speed ahead. Upon arrival at Subic Bay, during Operation Fiery Vigil, she evacuated 1,800 service members caught in the path of erupting Mount Pinatubo, transporting them to the island of Cebu for flights to the United States. This was to be one of the ship's last naval contributions.

The following excerpt is from a letter sent to me by Midway's Public Affairs Officer Brady Bautch, Chief Journalist.

 

"Thank you for writing. It is always good to hear from shipmates who are still interested in our ship. On September 14, [1991] Midway arrived at Naval Air Station North Island in Coronado, California, ending eighteen years as America's only carrier stationed abroad. The ship is now preparing to be decommissioned. That event is tentatively scheduled for Spring 1992."

Midway was the last of her class. The U.S.S. Franklin D. Roosevelt had been decommissioned in the late 1970s, and the Coral Sea, transferred some years before to the Atlantic Fleet, was taken out of service in 1990.

I received an invitation to attend Midway's April 11, 1992 decommissioning from her final skipper, Captain Ernst. Following is my journal account of the "retirement" ceremony.

Midway decommissioning invitation artifacts

 

Decommissioning Ceremony for the U.S.S. Midway (CV-41)

 

It was "up before the birds" this morning. Rob, Maria, Dawn, Michael, Robyn, Ven, DeAnn and I met as prearranged. After some coffee at an IHOP it was on to San Diego through a heavy marine layer that dissipated as we progressed. Ven and 7-year-old Dawn rode with me. DeAnn had Rob, Maria, Michael and little Robyn. About 10:00 AM we pulled up to the entrance gate of the Coronado Naval facility.

 

Swabbies in Cracker Jack-style dress blues, sparkling white hats and gloves, passed us through upon seeing our invitation. Looming above the buildings to our right, as we headed for a parking lot, was the Midway's superstructure, soon to be seen for the last time in the service of our country.

 

As we unloaded from the cars, a military shuttle van pulled up and two swabbies offered a ride. We weren't quite ready, but the fellows didn't seem to mind waiting and didn't show the least agitation. Michael, 10 years old, was the one who kept urging us to hurry. He was afraid the ship might leave before we got a chance to see it close up. I unsuccessfully tried assuring him that it would be there for some time yet.

 

Of course, we weren't the only attendees. There were several hundred people, including visiting military personnel and civilians. A red carpeted, raised platform and folding chairs were set up near the ship's berth. The Midway herself sported a fresh coat of battle gray. Her ship number "41" was a sharply contrasting white. Red, white and blue bunting draped her sides. Sunlight reflecting off the water scintillated her otherwise shaded underside.

 

Michael gazed at the ship's city-block length and multistory height in disbelief and wondered out loud if it were actually in water. How could something so big FLOAT? He also had trouble dealing with the fact I had lived aboard her for three years. It was all too much for his belief structure and range of experience.

 

Meanwhile, there was no marine layer here. The sun beat down mercilessly as groundwork for the event continued and more people arrived. Ven had brought a video as well as still camera, so he was off photographing. We didn't see him from our arrival until ceremony's end. DeAnn sat closest to me and asked a barrage of questions about life in the Navy and about the ship. She said I must get a lot of such questions. My ready answer was "NOT!"

 

Just before the decommissioning ceremony began the dignitaries arrived, chauffeured to the platform one by one. Each was heralded by the ringing of the ship's bell and a public address system introduction, followed by a short fanfare piece from the Naval Band San Diego. When this process ended, the following people were on the platform:

 

Captain Larry L. Ernst, USN, Commanding Officer

 

Commander Paul Murphey, USN (Retired), Chaplain

 

Admiral Robert J. Kelly, USN, Commander in Chief, US Pacific Fleet

 

Vice Admiral Edwin R. Kohn, USN, Commander, Naval Air Force, US Fleet Pacific

 

The Honorable H. Lawrence Garrett III, Secretary of the Navy

 

Mr. George Gay, Guest of Honor, hero of the Battle of Midway and guest of honor at U.S.S. Midway's Christening March 20, 1945.

 

The ritual included Invocation and Benediction by Chaplain Murphey, vocals by Captain Donald A. Schramm, USN—National Anthem and the Navy hymn "Eternal Father" (Strong to Save), speeches by each honored guest except Mr. Gay, and an eighteen-shot salute from two of Midway's guns. (Oh! The ears!) There were also fly-overs, in formation, by the type of planes Midway launched in 1945, including a trio of old propeller-driven F4U-4 Corsairs; also, there were four planes launched during the 1991 Operation Desert Storm, F/A-18 Hornets.

 

Great numbers of facts about the ship and its history were told during the talks. I had sent some excerpts about the Midway from this book in hopes the captain might have use for them during this special day. The only thing I recognized as probably coming from my contribution was the mention, by Captain Ernst, that the ship took twice as long to modernize after its 1965 decommissioning as it took to build it from scratch during World War II. Also, that there were enormous cost overruns.

 

I hadn't known that when the original order was put in for the Midway, it was for a battleship. However, because of the military effectiveness rethinking due to her namesake, the Battle of Midway, the order was changed to aircraft carrier.

 

When Captain Ernst asked all those present to stand who had attended the ship's original commissioning in 1945, a few dozen men near the platform got up from their seats to rousing applause. Then a long list was read of the ship's former captains present. On the list were both of my former captains, Rear Admiral Eugene J. Carroll, Jr. (12/02/1923—02/19/2003; burial Arlington Nat. Cem.) and Rear Admiral W. L. Harris, Jr.

  

Midway Magic button

Button now part of Midway Museum Accession #2009.066

  

The decommissioning theme was "47 Years of Midway Magic." The ship had garnered a long-standing record of extreme dependability and safety. Very few of her men had died or been injured due to on-board calamities. Even her planes were less likely to be shot down than those of her peer carriers. This tendency was obvious during the time I served aboard and was mentioned in A Petty Officer and a Swabbie.

 

Throughout the ceremony Midway sailors, in dress blues and white hats, stood at arm's distance from each other (called "Dress Right") along all visible shipboard walkways and the flight deck's perimeter. First they were called to Attention. Then the captain ordered Parade Rest.

 

Near the end, Secretary of the Navy Garrett awarded Captain Ernst a medal for hieing Midway and crew to the Philippines from the Persian Gulf with but a twenty-four hours notice. The emergency was the evacuation of US military personnel from Philippines bases during Mount Pinatubo's 1991 eruption.

 

Finally, Vice Admiral Kohn read aloud the Decommissioning Directive. Captain Ernst ordered the men to Attention and then to leave ship. The token ceremonial crew of a few hundred men left their vigil, filing down through the vessel and off the fore and aft gangways to assemble alongside the pier, while the Naval Band played Aaron Copeland's stirring Fanfare for the Common Man.

 

Captain Ernst ordered the Executive Officer, Commander John F. Schork, USN, to secure the ship's Commissioning Pennant and Ensign (US Flag). Taps were played by a lone bugler as the Pennant lowered to signify the end of Midway's active duty, i.e., military life. Shortly thereafter, Commander Schork delivered the Ensign and Pennant to Captain Ernst, and the captain relinquished command to the custodial care of Command Master Chief Harry V. Samuelson, Jr.

 

Several high ranking Japanese diplomats, each of their wives in formal kimono with obi, were seated near the platform. These were friends of the Midway from her eighteen years home ported in their country. They were honored to witness firsthand the elimination of the second greatest remaining symbol of their defeat in World War II. (I reserve the first to be the memorial to U.S.S. Arizona and crew at Pearl Harbor.)

 

Midway, last of her class and the first Pacific Fleet carrier to be decommissioned since the mid-1970s, when sixteen carriers were ushered out including the Oriskany and Bon Homme Richard, had passed from Active to Inactive. Yet she had proven herself still worthy of service during a late 1991 survey of extant capabilities. Consequently, instead of being disassembled, melted down and remolded into cans like her sister ship the Franklin D. Roosevelt, she would join the reserve fleet at Bremerton, Washington. (Her other sister ship, the Coral Sea, was in the Atlantic Fleet when decommissioned two years before.)

 

People quickly dispersed, some walking over to buy souvenirs or help themselves to the nearby banquet. We followed the ones lining up at the aft gangway to board ship. For more than an hour we toured the hangar bay and flight deck, the only areas open to visitors. Everything looked very familiar except the endless lines of semaphore flags hanging decoratively from the hangar bay's overhead, a nice touch. Rob and Maria brought their baby carrier on board, so we had some fun and interesting times maneuvering it up and down very narrow ladders.

 

Ven once again disappeared, this time with Dawn and Michael in tow. Later, we met up with them on the flight deck, where the two kids were playing near one of the ship's anchors and several feet of giant chain that were on display. DeAnn, the kids and I climbed up one deck higher on the island, where I gazed surreptitiously into the Admiral's Bridge from a catwalk for perhaps the last time.

 

Selection of Decommissioning Pictures

 

Time finally came for us to leave ship, get something to eat from under the red and white striped canopies, and have some decommissioning cake. Since we arrived on the scene after most other visitors, there wasn't much left in the line of eats. There was still plenty of fruit. The array included balls of cantaloupe, watermelon and casaba; strawberry pieces; green, seedless grapes; and wedges of fresh pineapple. There had been large chunks of meat, but Michael was the only one of our group able to find and obtain a piece. There were plenty of rolls, and I ran across a tray still containing several lumpia (Philippines-style egg rolls), with which I quickly filled up my small paper dish. The fruit would come later. Unfortunately, there was absolutely nothing to drink. The punch bowls were dry.

 

The entire episode was special to each of us in different ways. For me it was a final return to a long gone era and place of my life, to say goodbye while re-experiencing. For Rob it may have helped him understand an aspect of his late father's time in the Navy. His father, who died in the early 1980s, had served aboard the aircraft carrier USS Kearsage, long gone from the fleet. To the entire group it was a new experience, most likely never to be repeated in our lives, yet one we would fondly remember for many years to come.

 

I was excited to learn, in 1998, that a coalition of San Diego citizens was in the process of boosting the idea, collecting funds and other support, and petitioning the Navy, to procure the Midway as a floating naval aviation museum. Then, after about ten years of concerted efforts, including satisfying a virtual mountain of red tape, and great expense, the Secretary of the Navy awarded the Midway to San Diego in the summer of 2003. The Midway subsequently was towed down the coast from Bremerton to Oakland, California, where she stayed a few months to receive safety and other preparations. Finally, she arrived at San Diego Bay's North Island Naval Base on January 5, 2004, to receive a number of planes donated to the museum. With great fanfare, Midway crossed the bay to the Navy Pier on January 10—the museum's grand opening to the public scheduled for sometime in the first half of 2004. For an account of Midway's January 10 crossing, see Midway Returns to San Diego Bay.

With the 1991 venting of Mount Pinatubo upon the Philippines, Clark Air Force Base and the Subic Bay Naval Base were evacuated as they became buried under tons of ash and other volcanic debris. Clark would never again reopen, and the Subic Bay facility would be placed back into action only for a short while. Despite Philippines President Corazon Aquino's valiant fight to keep the bases open, the political mood of her fellow countrymen was such that they no longer wanted the United States to have a base there. The equally buried Olongapo City, when dug back out of the ash, died as a city of ill repute and was reborn as an international trade center.

San Diego Naval Training Center's Recruit Training Command disbanded the Bluejacket Choir in 1978. The Choir may have been the victim of a reduced military budget following the end of the Vietnam Era. By the time the final ax fell the Bluejacket Choir no longer had its own barrack. As in its beginning the men periodically assembled from respective companies for their only remaining purpose, to sing at North Chapel. The BJC had been in existence since 1953 and was long the Naval Training Center's only official choral organization. The name of Bluejacket Choir director Dr. John A. Williams appeared as one of the online Stanford Magazine obituaries for 2007.

The San Diego Naval Training Center was decommissioned in the 1990s. According to Wikipedia, "The base was closed by the Base Realignment and Closure (or BRAC) 1993 commission at the end of the Cold War. It is now the site of Liberty Station, a mixed-use community being redeveloped and repurposed by the City of San Diego." When I was in San Diego and drove by the former Center in 2004, I noted with some sadness that the once pristine grounds which had turned out generations of seafaring men now produced only a large crop of weeds. It's good to learn that life is being breathed back into the site while retaining some of the original naval base buildings and other points of interest.

Over the years, many states have given bonuses and other forms of appreciation to their Vietnam veterans. I received six hundred badly needed dollars from the grateful citizens of Michigan in 1974. Also, The Wall was built in Washington, DC, to commemorate the more than 58,000 men who fell in Vietnam. Though it is unlikely that a wall will ever be built to the 60,000-plus Vietnam veterans who, as of 1979, have taken their own lives, they are no less victims and should not be excluded from the collective consciousness and conscience of this great land.


1 Also in 1975, the Navy removed the "A" from CVA, making the designation "CV," and "CVN" for nuclear-powered ships. Return


Copyright 1992, 1998, 2008 Charles W. Paige

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