Nearly five decades ago, in October 1973, the USS Midway became the first U.S. aircraft carrier to be permanently based in a foreign country. On the 48th anniversary of this historic occasion, former Midway crewmembers reflected on the unique experience of calling Yokosuka, Japan, their home away from home.
“Living in Japan was great,” said Dan Woodward, who was a senior chief petty officer in Attack Squadron 56 (VA-56) assigned to Midway’s airwing in 1982. “The Japanese people were fun. Once a month, we would go eat at their house and they would eat at ours.”
The decision to forward deploy Midway to Japan was the result of an accord reached between the United States and Japan in August 1972. The move had strategic significance because it continuously positioned an aircraft carrier in the Western Pacific. Midway became the Navy’s on-call carrier.
Midway became the Navy’s on-call carrier.
Midway sailors referred to their unique operational status as always being at the “tip of the spear.”
“I loved Japan, but to be honest, being the forward-deployed carrier, our at-sea schedule was very busy,” said Cmdr. Keith Morris, who was an air traffic controller when he joined Midway in 1988. “I am proud to have been a part of something so great.”
On average, U.S.-based naval ships spend roughly 25 percent of their time deployed overseas, while the ships based in Japan are operating in the waters from the Western Pacific to the Middle East nearly 70 percent of the time.
“While it was personally challenging being out of our homeport most of the time, professionally, it was the best job I’ve ever had,” said retired Capt. Jim Reily, who was Midway’s supply officer from 1989-1991 and now directs the volunteer docent program at the museum. “I’d wake up in the morning knowing we would be doing important things defending freedom.”
The Navy has more than 20 ships currently based in Japan and sailors make up nearly one third of all U.S. military personnel stationed there. While the operational schedules for these forward-deployed naval forces are tremendously demanding, the opportunities to be immersed in a unique foreign culture are exceptional. Midway’s crew were the first to experience life in Japan as temporary residents.
“I enjoyed living in Yokosuka,” said Craig Dever, a dentist aboard Midway in the early 1980s. “I took advantage of a semester-long Japanese language course given on the ship. Wherever I went in Japan, the people were friendly, helpful and honest, and most everyone wanted to practice their English on me.”
As their time off was often short-lived, Midway crewmembers tried to soak up as much of Japan as they could. Participation in local festivals and outdoor activities often rose to the top of the list of things to do, and more than few came back to the states as sushi lovers.
“I learned a lot in Japan making lifetime memories,” said Bruce Cunningham, an aviation boatswain’s mate who served on Midway from 1990 to 1991. “It was an exciting and overwhelming experience. The curiosity we mutually had to learn of each other’s language and culture is what brought us together.”
“Climbing Mount Fuji was a highlight,” said Dan, a member of the museum’s safety team. “At each level, I got my walking stick branded in Japanese. Looking down on the clouds as the sun came up, what a sight to behold.”
For Keith, while Japan was an unforgettable life experience, his favorite memory of being deployed overseas was a bit more personal.
“With so many experiences on board the USS Midway, it is hard to single out just one,” said Keith, who now commands the Fleet Area Control and Surveillance Facilities (FACSFAC) Jacksonville. “But if I had to pick one, it would be meeting my wife of now 33 years. She too was a sailor stationed in Japan and since I met her, my second day there, we were inseparable.”
The Navy continues to permanently base an aircraft carrier at the Yokosuka Naval Base in Japan. When Midway returned to the states in 1991 to be decommissioned, she was relieved by the USS Independence. The USS Ronald Reagan is the fifth and current carrier to call Japan home.