We arrived at the Navy Pier on the morning of January 10, 2004, about an hour before its 9:00 o'clock opening to the public. My friend Ven went off on his own to take pictures, much as he had done when we attended the Midway's decommissioning in 1992. I spent some time near the closed pier, taking pictures of welcoming signs and of people boarding a San Diego-Coronado Ferry for North Island. Most of those boarding so early this morning were generous donors and VIPs that would be accompanying Midway across the bay as her guests.
From my vantage between the Navy and Broadway piers I could see two aircraft carriers moored along North Island's military compound. At first I thought one of them must be the Midway. Then I looked closer and saw it was number 74, a Nimitz class CVN by the name of USS John C. Stennis. The other carrier had what appeared to be a wooden structure either covering or replacing the ship's island. Upon my query, one of the volunteers guarding the entrance to the Navy Pier said that the Midway could be seen from one of the more southern piers.
I walked a short distance south along Harbor Drive, then through the Tuna Harbor Park to the west end of G Street and onto the Commercial Fishing Pier. Perhaps ten people were already there, looking across the bay at the Midway, with more arriving in a steady stream.
Midway appeared to be moored at the same spot where she was located at her 1992 decommissioning. When I had last seen her, at that decommissioning, I had no expectation of ever seeing her again except in memories and pictures. Yet, thanks to the concerted efforts of numerous San Diegans and contributors, there she was, back from exile at Bremerton, Washingtonawaiting her new assignment.
A few of the smarter spectators had brought chairs. A few had brought binoculars. And nearly all had brought cameras. A van was the only vehicle on the pier. Affiliated with it was a fellow carrying a large TV camera that was aiming at another fellow who was talking into a microphone about the Midway. The fellow holding the microphone later introduced himself as Dave Scott, a San Diego weatherman. He interviewed one of the other onlookers before his live broadcast ended.
I was weighted down with an assortment of cameras, binoculars, their cases, and a no-longer-needed jacket. Among my cameras were: a Sony Mavica digital and a Mamiya-Sekor 35mm. The former was only three years old. The latter was thirty-three years old. I had bought it at the ship's store on the USS Midway in 1970. Between the two I would take well over 100 pictures, mostly of the different stages of Midway crossing the bay.
View a collage from Midway crossing
Traffic in the bay between North Island and the Navy Pier seemed light, and I was surprised, considering it was Saturday morning and a beautiful day. Then I realized that the small number of pleasure craft might have been in response to the beefed-up security surrounding the ship's voyage. Some of the security measures included watch dogging by a small, battle-gray, Navy Security boat, a Coast Guard cutter, and a helicopter that paid special attention to the area where my fellow onlookers and I were standing on the Commercial Pier. Later I realized that perhaps the TV news van appeared suspicious because it had none of the typical network identifying marks.
Right on schedule, the tugs began turning the Midway around at 9:00 AM until she was heading bow first toward her destination. There was no hurry crossing the bay, perhaps as much for the pleasure of her onboard guests as for the picture-taking opportunities of her onshore greeters. I placed my cameras and binoculars on the edge of the pier within easy reach. Then I picked and chose which to use for a particular shot or closer view.
I never got bored watching the Midway's crossing, regardless of how slowly she proceeded. There was plenty of time to adjust for lighting and focus, and to decide on representative shots. The Navy Security and Coast Guard boats, and the helicopter, were ever vigilant, while the number of boats in the bay steadily increased. I got the impression that the locals who weren't part of the Midway's fan club didn't seem all that curious about the Midway's arrival. After all, San Diego was the largest carrier port on the west coast. For most, the awe of seeing aircraft carriers arrive and depart had probably worn thin.
A nice touch was the salute of water being jetted high in the air from a couple of water boats. Also, the bright orange and yellow tugs, C-tractors 7, 8, 9, and 11, added touches of color to what otherwise might have been too much gray and blue. The dark blue of San Diego Bay and Tuna Harbor, both perfectly smooth, were nicely contrasted by the light blue of the sky, which hadn't the hint of a cloud. It seemed that God and the Port of San Diego authorities were being especially good to the Midway and us this day.
Once the Midway's bow was close to the Tuna Harbor entrance, the C-tractors began turning her around. What a stunning sight to see! I realized about this time that in all the years of my association with the Midway, from both near and afar, I had never seen her at sea. Of course, I had seen pictures of her at sea, but never live. Now we were being treated to a 360-degree view as she was slowly spun around on her axis right there in front of us.
Now that her bow was facing North Island, and fantail was facing San Diego, the C-tractors inched her into Tuna Harbor and along her new home, the Navy Pier. She was proceeding so slowly that I was able to walk alongside of her down Tuna Lane, at a leisurely pace, and still get ahead of her. By the time her stern reached its apex, at about 10:35 AM, I was already on the Navy Pier near where her guests eventually would be disembarking.
The initial music on the Navy Pier was provided by a band that was performing on the dais that later would be used for the welcoming ceremony. I tried to see the name of their band but couldn't find anything showing the group's name. Soon I was purchasing some Midway-stenciled pullover shirts, ball caps, and mugs from covered tables selling a wide assortment of souvenirs. Oh, how I had regretted not buying any souvenirs at Midway's decommissioning. I met up again with Ven, and we had lunch. Suddenly, three planes zoomed overhead in formation. They made a couple more passes, but they would appear from nowhere and then be gone before cameras could even be aimed. I was told by one of the several red-jacketed volunteers on the pier that two of the planes were small, single prop engine T-28 trainers, and the other, a small jet, was a trainer of Italian manufacture.
It took a while between Midway's arrival and when her guests were permitted to leave. The little band left the dais, and the Jackstraw Trio, representing San Diego's Seaport Village, began singing and playing their musical instruments not far from the pier's entrance. At about 11:00 AM a Brewer mobile lift vehicle raised the gangway so that it could be attached to the ship at one end and a mobile ladder/stairway at the other. Now the US Navy Band, led by Chief Harold MaHannah, moved in and stood facing the gangway. Several non-VIP persons, mostly military, left the ship immediately after the gangway was passable. The VIPs and generous donors began leaving at 11:30 AM to rousing music from the Navy Band.
One of the first people to leave ship during this last exodus was a tiny, white-haired woman using a walker. Suffice it to say it took her a while to navigate the many rungs of the ladder/stairs, helped along by a couple of Good Samaritan officers. Soon a steady stream of personages began leaving. I tried to detect anybody I might have seen on TV or in movies, to no avail. I kept hoping to see Huell Howser, too, but apparently he had not covered the event. I had sent him an email a week before, and had gotten a response that had raised my expectations.
It was about 12:12 PM before the ceremony began. Among the VIPs sitting on the dais were Peter Davis, emcee and representing the Port of San Diego, Rear Admiral Patrick Walsh, Commander Carrier Group 7, Dick Murphy, Mayor of San Diego, Bill Horn, Supervisor of San Diego County, and Alan Uke, the man who heroically spearheaded the movement to bring the Midway to San Diego. Of the other people, two were an ace pilot (who hadn't flown from the Midway) and his wife, and the other was another county politician.
During the speeches by all of the VIPs except the ace and his wife, I learned that in 1928 the City of San Diego had built the pier we were now occupying, and had given it to the Navy in 1941. Ownership of the pier was returned to San Diego in 2003, after which the Port of San Diego had leased it to the San Diego Aircraft Carrier Museum organization to be the new home for the Midway. It was also mentioned that 200,000 crewmembers had served aboard the ship during her 47 years on active duty.
All the while I felt a mixture of being honored, flattered, and fortunate to be counted among the former crewmembers, and having my old ship venerated so. But the real honor for the success of the Midway Project goes to Alan Uke and the several others who have spent huge amounts of time, money, and effort putting it all together and finally winning the Navy's approval and award of the ship and pier. This cannot be stressed enough.
The ceremony ended at about 12:50 PM, after Peter Davis and Alan Uke exchanged ceremonial plaques and handshakes (as shown below). All the while, towering in the background was the Midway, impressive as ever, though some of her paint looking worse for wear. It would require a little more touching up before her Grand Debut as a museum only a few months away. My thanks to all the volunteers who will be donating their time to finish getting her ready. If only I didn't live so far away...
In honor of Midway's new lease on life, and all that she represents to so many, I wrote Laurels for Midway.
For an account of Midway's April 11, 1992, decommissioning ceremony, see Decommissioning Ceremony for the U.S.S. Midway (CV-41).
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