One of America's largest museums opened last year, after roaming the world for nearly five decades. The U.S.S. Midway was the longest-serving aircraft carrier in the U.S. Navy when it was put out to pasture - or wherever they put old floating cities - shortly after the liberation of Kuwait. This particular floating city sat in the rain for 11 years as part of the U.S. Navy mothball fleet in Bremerton, Wash., where most vessels await the sting of the cutting torch. But during its lonely years on death row, hundreds of volunteers worked to raise more than $8 million U.S. to resurrect the Midway to a new life as the world's largest floating museum.
Early in 2004, a private group of volunteers finally took possession of the huge ship and had it towed south to San Diego Harbor. A year later, it lowered its gangplank to visitors.
Midway's last mission was to serve as the naval command headquarters for Desert Storm, the U.S.-led military campaign in 1991 to free Kuwait from the grips of Saddam Hussein's army.
It was the largest ship afloat when it was launched in Norfolk, Va., in 1945 and named after a famous Second World War sea battle in which it didn't participate. During its career, it also served off the coast of Viet Nam, was the first carrier to launch a jet fighter and the first ship to launch a rocket.
Although today's aircraft carriers are larger, the 1,001-foot Midway is still an awesome sight. Off the end of its flight deck you can see the U.S.S. Ronald Reagan and the U.S.S. Nimitz, two of America's nuclear aircraft carriers tied up at piers on the other side of San Diego Harbor. These three fighting ships look to be from the same era, but the Reagan and Nimitz carry a lot of hull design features and high-tech gadgetry that first went to sea on the Midway. Reagan and Nimitz are about 80 feet longer, carry 1,500 more crew members than the 4,500 who lived aboard Midway, and they don't carry the Midway's smoke stack. Their nuclear reactors don't require smoke stacks, and they can steam the seas for 20 years before needing to top up their fuel. Midway had to carry 2.23 million gallons of oil for its own engines, plus another 1.2 million gallons of jet fuel for the 80 fighter aircraft it lugged around in its massive belly.
There are huge facts and figures associated with a ship this size and those details pour out of your earphones as you wander around Midway's vast interior and stroll about its 4.5-acre flight deck. You will learn that the chefs cooked and served 13,000 meals a day, including 4,500 pounds of meat and 3,000 pounds of potatoes. Mothers will be happy to learn that the crew also consumed 5,000 pounds of vegetables each day. They chatted on 1,500 telephones, and the ship's monthly payroll exceeded $1.2 million. Midway's 12 boilers produced 212,000 horsepower and fed steam into turbines that produced enough electrical power to run a city of 1 million people.
Modern fighter jets sit seemingly ready for action on Midway's flight deck and you can watch volunteers restore other historic airplanes in the hangar deck below. This year, the Midway started taking groups of youngsters aboard to live a sailor's life - including sleeping overnight in crew bunks, chowing down in the galleys and flying combat missions in flight simulators.
Although the active aircraft carriers in San Diego Harbor are surrounded by heavily-armed marines and fast patrol boats, U.S.S. Midway sits right in the heart of the city, open to all comers. Several other famous vessels, such as Star of India, the Berkeley and H.M.S. Surprise, share San Diego's downtown waterfront with the Midway.
Star of India is the world's oldest active ship. It was built in 1863, has a year-round crew for training young people and sails at least once a year to maintain its record as the oldest active ship known to man. The Berkeley is a steam ferry built in 1898 that served San Francisco Bay for 60 years. It carried thousands of survivors to safety after the 1906 San Francisco earthquake. Surprise is an Academy Award-winning replica of an 18th century Royal Navy frigate that starred with Russell Crow in the movie, Master and Commander: The Far Side of The World.
Patrick Brennan is a veteran travel, business writer/photographer based in Guelph. His credits include writing for a chain of 60 newspapers with 1.6 million readers. He was a staff writer/photographer at the Toronto Star for 32 years.
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