February 12, 2024 | Karl’s Korner, Announcements

The USS Midway Museum at Twenty

The USS Midway Museum docked at Navy Pier
The USS Midway Museum docked at Navy Pier

When the USS Midway Museum first opened its doors to the public in 2004, many still doubted if the experiment of creating a floating naval ship museum in San Diego would be a success.

Two decades later, as the museum celebrates its 20th anniversary, not only has it been an incredible success story, but it has blossomed into an important community asset fully integrated into the fabric of San Diego’s unique culture.  Midway swiftly transcended being merely a museum to now stand proudly as a preeminent monument to naval aviation, an inspiring education center, a unique special events venue, and a renowned volunteer organization.

Yet, all of this would not have been possible were it not for the redoubtable vision of a single businessman.

 In 1992, local entrepreneur Alan Uke of San Diego County was running for Congress. To set himself apart from the other contenders, he turned to his admiration for the armed forces and made bringing an aircraft carrier to San Diego as a museum the centerpiece of his campaign.  Although he failed to secure the political nomination, Alan clung to his notion and devoted more than a decade of his life to convincing the Navy that having a large ship like Midway become a museum made economic sense.  He continued to overcome a mountain of obstacles with a sound coalition of local supporters and influential people at various levels of government.  Finally, in August 2003, with all matters being soundly addressed and money raised, Midway was transferred to the San Diego Aircraft Carrier Museum.

Simply taking title to the ship was just the beginning. Now, a tow to San Diego from the naval shipyard in Bremerton, Washington, had to be arranged, and facilities needed to be upgraded, or even built, to support berthing the ship at Navy Pier on San Diego’s Embarcadero.

The ship also needed extensive cleaning before its journey south, and because no one could bear to have Midway round Point Loma with rust on her sides, a new paint job was necessary.  However, initial plans to stop in Portland were canceled due to silting issues in the Columbia River, and Midway was taken to her old homeport of Alameda in San Francisco Bay.  In nearby Oakland, painters used a quay wall to first paint one side, and then after turning the ship around, painted the other with a fresh coat of gray paint from dozens of roller brushes on very long poles. Once painted, she began her journey across the sea to San Diego.

USS Midway
USS Midway's transit across the San Diego Bay

Midway’s arrival to San Diego in January 2004 was supposed to be a festive event with news helicopters overhead and a flotilla of boosters on their boats escorting her in, but the tug had mechanical problems while just offshore. So, Midway glided into San Diego Bay in the middle of a wintry night, her unlighted features silhouetted against the Downtown skyline.  Moored first at Naval Air Station North Island, Midway’s very first artifacts – four vintage naval aircraft – were craned aboard over the course of a week while preparations were made for a grand “last cruise” across the bay to the ship’s new home at Navy Pier.

Hundreds of supporters and museum officials embarked Midway at North Island in a festive mood for a party expected to last hours as the ship inched its way to its new mooring platforms.  Instead, the professional Navy tugs who routinely handled even larger active duty carriers maneuvered Midway with efficiency and surety and had her alongside her permanent mooring in less than an hour.  Nevertheless, the short voyage was a joy and set the tone for the opening of the new museum.

After weeks of additional and furious cleaning and painting, as well as the installation of required safety features, the work of turning the ship into a museum kicked into high gear.  The first task was determining what people could see and how to comport them throughout a warship not designed to accommodate the public.  For instance, the island superstructure was difficult to access and in need of much restoration before it could be exhibited.  However, it was certain to be a top draw for visitors, so swift efforts were made to render the bridge worthy of exhibition.

Another innovation was employing a self-guided audio tour, a novelty decades ago.  This audio approach obviated the need for guided group tours and cluttering up the ship with elaborate exhibition panels to carry the presentation load.  Instead, each guest could call up a particular exhibition or stop to hear narration, interviews, sound, and musical effects at their own pace.  Since its installment, this audio system has proved enduring and has been adopted by other institutions across the land.

View of Battle of Midway theater and aircraft on the Hangar Deck
View of Battle of Midway theater and aircraft on the Hangar Deck

With more than 2,000 separate compartments, Midway had no shortage of potential exhibits to open, and for the first decade, the expansion of the original tour route introduced additional portions of the ship to the public, a greater percentage than for any other major warship museum in the world.  Logical extensions from the first tour route, including the sick bay, the galley, the wardrooms, the chief’s mess, and the fo’c’sle, were joined by determined efforts to get inaccessible regions like main control, engine room 3, and the gallery deck – including seven separate pilot ready rooms restored by outside volunteer organizations – the radio room, the captain’s in-port cabin complete with an animatronic captain figure, and the Tactical Flag Command Center where Operation Desert Storm was directed, were added into the lineup.  Then, in 2015, an all-new theater with a holographic figure and custom film feature opened the Battle of Midway. Not long after, with extensive restoration, the Combat Information Center (CIC) and the Midway’s air traffic control center opened.

With much to display and to protect the well-being of each guest in a challenging environment, a robust and well-trained volunteer docent corps was a must. With very little funding at first, Midway tapped San Diego’s substantial retired military community to establish a substantive safety department, staffed extensively by specially trained volunteers, which was stood up in record time.

Actual naval aircraft associated with the Midway’s 47-year career have been especially popular with visitors, particularly since they have unprecedented access to their features.  Within three years, Midway’s collection expanded six-fold to 24 restored aircraft, courtesy of a volunteer crew working in an old hangar at North Island devoted to supporting Midway.  At present, Midway’s air wing features 34 beautifully restored Navy and Marine Corps planes and helicopters, with more on the horizon. Adding more realism to our exhibition, live docent presentations were perfected on the Flight Deck to describe in thrilling detail how carrier aircraft are catapult-launched from the ship and how they are landed or “trapped” aboard.

Because of Midway’s nature as an aircraft carrier and her role in history, she has hosted several aviation-related commemorations. In May 2004, just weeks before the museum opened to the public, a reconciliation ceremony was held between Japan’s Zero Fighter Pilots Association and U.S. fliers from the World War II era.  Midway then became the designated site for the Navy’s annual Battle of Midway commemoration and for the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association in December.  Midway’s lifesaving role in the harrowing evacuations from Saigon in April 1975 has led the ship to become the venue of choice for Southern California’s Vietnamese community as a means of remembering that event and celebrating their new lives in a land of freedom.

Having four acres of unparalleled open-air space 50 feet above the bay made Midway’s Flight Deck one of the most sought-after venues in San Diego for various spectacles and corporate events. Over the past two decades, the best viewing platform for San Diego’s Big Bay Boom fireworks display has been aboard Midway, and private concert events have become a regular feature in Midway’s perpetually crowded special-events calendar. In 2009 and 2017, the Flight Deck was graced with thrilling takeoffs by Red Bull competitive pylon race planes.  Unique movie specials, like the annual “Top Gun” movie night, draw thousands of “need for speed” fans to the flight deck.  In May 2022, Tom Cruise helicoptered in to promote the “Top Gun: Maverick” sequel for an exclusive red-carpet event with cast and crew.

"The Kiss" statue with the USS Midway Museum behind
"The Kiss" statue with the USS Midway Museum behind

Giving back to the San Diego community has always been a priority and Midway has taken the lead on several important initiatives. In 2013, a permanent version of the “Kiss” statue was installed alongside Midway at Tuna Harbor, thanks to the museum’s monetary contribution and fund-raising efforts. Early in the museum’s career, enhancing youth education in the region became a hallmark, with funds provided to schools enabling field trips to visit the ship and its special programs. By the end of the first decade, the Midway Institute for Teachers was bringing high school teachers aboard each summer to enhance their skills in specific subjects, and the 2019 academic year saw the establishment of the USS Midway Center for War and Society at San Diego State University.  After more than a decade of participating in the annual Veterans’ Day Parade, as of 2023, Midway now coordinates this important veteran’s tribute and will ensure its survival for years to come.

Although the 2020 worldwide COVID shutdowns impacted Midway, the ship remained a beacon for a hopeful tomorrow, and this was realized not long after the restrictions were eased and the touring public regained confidence.  Midway first achieved 1 million annual visitors in 2012 and reattained that attendance milestone in 2022.  Extending the Midway’s rebounding popularity post-pandemic were new marketing initiatives, including the first-ever “Jingle Jets” Christmas extravaganza in 2023, decorating several decks of Midway in thousands of lights.  These holiday features allowed residents to see the museum in a new way and include Midway in their future holiday plans.

For two decades and counting, the USS Midway Museum has been a nationally ranked institution celebrated for its unflinching commitment to preserving the legacy of service, inspiring future generations, and educating the world about freedom and integrity.

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