In 1922, renowned British archaeologist, Howard Carter, working in Egypt’s Valley of the Kings, entered the 3,000-year-old inner chamber of King Tut’s tomb. Nearly a century later, it is still considered one of the greatest archaeological finds of all time.

Flash forward to the summer of 2021. The Midway Museum’s engineering department was grinding away decades of paint and rust from the flight deck’s round-down as part of the ship’s continuous restoration process. Located at the rear of the ship, the round-down slopes slightly downward from the aft portion of the flight deck to reduce air turbulence for landing aircraft.

With needle guns and grinders revved at a feverish pitch, the restoration team was quickly making its way across the round-down, when suddenly, they notice some bizarre, raised welding marks embedded into the deck.

“It was a bit unusual to find any kind of markings on the flight deck’s steel plating,” said Scot Whaley, Midway’s facilities manager. “Even though it seemed odd, I thought it was worth taking a look to see what might be underneath all those years of paint, non-skid and rust.”

The crew slackened its pace and began its own archaeological expedition. Carefully chiseling and scraping away the layers of coatings from the round-down, the patterns they had uncovered slowly started taking shape.

“As my team continued cleaning around the markings, it started to look like someone had actually bead-welded a series of letters onto the flight deck,” said Scot, a retired Navy chief boatswain mate. “As we exposed more letters, we could see that they actually were spelling people’s names.”

At first two names were discovered, then four and ultimately a total of eight names were revealed tightly stacked in two short vertical columns on the deck. But whose names were they – sailors, pilots, maintenance crews?

Let the sleuthing begin. Of the eight names, six were legible enough to read. Midway’s library team began pouring through several old cruise books as well as the museum’s growing former crewmember data base. Slowly they started to find the names of these former Midway crewmembers. Some were found in the ship’s cruise books from the mid-1970s, while others were hit upon in cruise books from the 1980s. 

“We couldn’t find them all because we were unable to decipher a couple of the names on the deck,” said Phil Eakin, one of Midway’s volunteer librarians. “But the ones we found were in the 76-78 and 81-82 cruise books.” 

“So, does that count as research or archeology?” said fellow librarian volunteer, Carl Snow, who was also involved in identifying the names on the deck. 

Five of the eight crewmembers whose names were welded into the flight deck were found in this USS Midway cruise book photo from 1978 - (circled l to r) Petty Officer Key, Petty Officer Ferry, Lt. McElwee, Petty Officer Lemmon and Chief Petty Officer Amos.

One of the names deciphered belonged to Chuck McElwee, a radar intercept officer in Fighter Squadron 161 (VF-161), an F-4 Phantom squadron assigned to Midway’s airwing. Carl and Chuck later served together in the early 1980s when they were both assigned to the ship’s air department. Carl knew that when Chuck retired in the early 1990s, he move to Australia to open a flight instruction school near Perth.

Taking a chance, a shot-in-the-dark email was sent to Air Australia International, a flight school located 12 miles south of Perth, with the hope that someone there knew of Chuck McElwee.

The response came quickly.

“You found me,” said Chuck, who actually founded the flight school in 1992. “The names were welded there while we were in port in Yokosuka in 1976. We were getting the flight deck re-non-skidded and I told the welders to put everyone’s name on the round-down.”

There they sat buried for 45 years.

The welded names have now been preserved by Midway’s engineers and will last at least another half century.

“Finding these names on the flight deck was like unearthing a little Midway treasure from the past,” said Scot, who has been with the museum since 2013. “I wonder what other secrets are buried in this ship.”

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