To be or KNOT to be, that is the million dollar question.

When former Midway volunteer Jim Simmons began his knot-tying demonstrations on the ship’s fo’c’sle in 2007 as a way to entertain museum guests and highlight the history of seamanship, little did he know the impact that he would ultimately have on thousands of students in San Diego.

Jim would offer the bracelets he made to visitors in exchange for small donations that would go to Midway’s education department. That first year, nearly $3,000 dollars were collected and applied to the museum’s Bravo Zulu (BZ) Scholarship Fund that was in its infancy.

This is Karl’s final article in a series commemorating the 100th anniversary of the U.S. aircraft carrier in 2022

The United States entered World War II following the Japanese naval air strike against the Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. Fortunately, the three U.S. aircraft carriers were not in port during the attack, and within weeks, American naval forces were hitting back at Japanese outposts in the Pacific. 

The carriers USS Enterprise (CV-6) and USS Yorktown (CV-5), newly returned from the Atlantic, struck the first blows against enemy forces at the Marshall and Gilbert Islands. The Enterprise narrowly became a casualty when a crippled enemy bomber attempted to crash into the ship bust just missed the flight deck. 

The USS Saratoga (CV-3), however, was torpedoed near Oahu in January 1942 and was forced to return to the West Coast for repairs and modernization. Meanwhile, her sister ship, the USS Lexington (CV-2) launched a raid on the new Japanese stronghold of Rabaul in New Guinea, where a young fighter pilot named Edward “Butch” O’Hare earned the Medal of Honor for single-handedly devastating a bomber formation attempting to attack the carrier.

 The U.S. carriers kept up their tempo of hit-and-run attacks including a surprise foray against a Japanese landing in New Guinea; strikes against Wake Island; and a spectacular raid against the Japanese homeland by Army Air Corps B-25 bombers flying from the USS Hornet (CV-8) on Apr.18, 1942. The large planes could not land back aboard the carrier, so the raid required landings in eastern China, but not one of the 18 attacking Mitchells landed as planned. 

USS Wasp (CV-7) burning and listing after being torpedoed by a Japanese submarine on Sept. 15,1942, while supporting U.S. forces on Guadalcanal.

While Enterprise and Hornet were occupied with the Tokyo raid, Lexington and Yorktown fought history’s first carrier clash at the Battle of Coral Sea from May 4-8, 1942. The Japanese lost a light carrier, Shoho, and suffered major damage to the fleet carrier, Shokaku, while Yorktown sustained bomb damage. The less-nimble Lexington was also hit by bombs as well as struck by torpedoes that ultimately doomed her. Heavily damaged, she was later scuttled becoming the first U.S. fleet carrier to be sunk during the war.

Naval intelligence estimates warned of an upcoming Japanese offensive planned against the American outpost on the Midway atoll at the end of the Hawaiian-island chain, so Enterprise, Hornet, and Yorktown returned to Pearl Harbor. Yorktown underwent a marathon three-day repair that patched her up sufficiently to deploy to Midway, while her original air group was largely replaced by fresh aircrews from Saratoga’s old squadrons.

In an epic three-day clash in early June 1942, dive bombers from Enterprise and Yorktown devastated the Japanese carriers Akagi, Kaga and Soryu, in what became known as the “six minutes that changed the world.” A day later, a fourth Japanese carrier, the Hiryu, succumb. Hiryu’s planes, however, crippled Yorktown before an enemy submarine finished her. Though costly, particularly among the U.S. Navy’s torpedo squadrons, the American carrier victory at the Battle of Midway stopped the Japanese advances in the Pacific once and for all.

Success at Midway permitted an early U.S. offensive at Guadalcanal in the South Pacific, and the American carriers were in the thick of the six-month struggle for the island. Submarine attacks damaged Saratoga (again) and sank the USS Wasp (CV-7), which had ferried British fighters to besieged Malta in the Mediterranean just a few months earlier. Two carrier clashes, one in August and the other in October, ultimately repelled Japanese attempts to recapture Guadalcanal, though at the cost of Hornet.

While both sides in the Pacific reinforced into the first months of 1943, the USS Ranger (CV-4) supported the Operation Torch invasion of French Morocco and Algeria in November 1942.

Soon, an entirely new type of flattop, the escort carrier, took to the seas. Employed as aircraft transports, amphibious assault support ships, and submarine killers, the “Jeep Carriers” became indispensable in both the Atlantic and Pacific.

USS Independence (CVL-22) leads a U.S. Navy flotilla while on patrol in the Pacific Ocean during World War II.

Meanwhile, shipyards furiously hammered out new carriers for fleet service, including the conversion of nine cruiser hulls into light carriers of the Independence class, and the astonishing completion, in time for combat, of 12 Essex-class fleet carriers. Matching these achievements was the training of new air groups to deploy on these new flight decks, strengthening the offensive power of the fleet exponentially.

With the newly constructed flattops joining the surviving American carriers from the summer of 1943, the U.S. Pacific Fleet wielded a dominating naval aviation force that sustained a relentless amphibious offensive that drove Japanese forces back into the Western Pacific. A huge carrier clash off Guam on June 19, 1944, saw Japanese carrier aviation literally shot from the sky, never to be a factor again.

Despite devastating kamikaze suicide attacks in the later stages of the war, the carriers led the continued advance across the Philippines, Iwo Jima, Okinawa, and right off Japan’s shores, when the war ended in August 1945. The mobility and destructive power of the carriers and their air groups won a resounding victory in the Pacific, but the rise of the atomic bomb and short-sighted government policies would soon endanger the carrier as never before.

He had just turned 14 when the Japanese attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii on Dec. 7, 1941. Like many Americans, he wanted to “join the fight,” but Joe Neves was too young. The wait seemed like an eternity, but as soon has he turned 17, he convinced his father to sign a “permission slip” so that he could enlist in the Navy.

It was late 1944 when Joe put on the uniform of his country for the first time, and he was ready to go.

“I was sent to an accelerated six-week boot camp in at Sampson Naval Training Station on Seneca Lake in New York,” said Joe, who was excited to finally be doing his part to defend his country. “I was then sent to gunnery school for two months in Oklahoma.”

After joining his first squadron flying in the PB4Y2 Privateer patrol bomber, the Navy’s version of the B-24 bomber, Joe’s unit was sent north to Dutch Harbor, Alaska.

“We spent three very cold months patrolling for Japanese around the Aleutian Islands,” recalled Joe.

Joe joined the Navy at age 17 in 1944.

By the end of 1945, Joe was assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Princeton (CV-37) as a tail gunner and radioman in an SB2C Helldiver in one of the carrier’s dive bomber squadrons.

A milestone in Joe’s naval career happened in 1946 when he was transferred to world famous Tophatters of Navy Bombing Squadron 4 (VB-4) flying off the USS Tarawa (CV-40). Established in 1919, the legendary Tophatters are the Navy’s oldest active aviation squadron. Today, however, the Tophatters are known as Strike Fighter Squadron 14 (VFA-14) flying the F/A-18 Super Hornet from their home base of Naval Air Station Lemoore, Calif.

“I never expected that I would join the oldest squadron in the U.S. Navy,” said Joe, who was still only 19 years old at the time. “Wow, I’m in the Tophatters I thought to myself. I was so thrilled.”

Flying again as a tail gunner in a Helldiver, the Tophatters’ post-World War II assignment consisted mainly of flying what Joe called “clean-up” patrols in the western Pacific near Saipan and the Mariana Islands.

“We flew scouting and search missions, patrolling to find submarines,” said Joe, who is currently the oldest living Tophatter. “Even though the war was over, we were still flying out to the Japanese islands to see if there were any troops left over who might still be trying to fight.”

The flying duty was long and tough, but Joe loved being part of the squadron.

“Every pilot in the squadron treated us as one of them,” remembered Joe with a smile. “They were the greatest guys. They really took care of us.”

As the fighting between the Chinese Nationalists and the Chinese Communists continued to escalate in the late 1940s, Joe and the Tophatters found themselves on the periphery of a Chinese civil war. After making a port call in Tsingtao, China in October 1948, the Tarawa’s crew and airwing spent five weeks off the coast of northern China observing the strife enveloping the region.

Whether deployed overseas or back in the States, the nearly three years Joe was with the Tophatters were highlight of his time in the Navy.

“I just have a strong love for that squadron,” said Joe, who left the Navy in 1949. “I spent most of my time in the Navy with the Tophatters, and I’ve never met a greater group than the guys in that squadron. I was so lucky to be a Tophatter.”

After leaving the Navy in 1949, Joe went to work as a machinist and ultimately a design engineer for an aerospace manufacturing company. In 1980, he began a second career as an international trade specialist with the U.S. Department of Commerce. Before retiring in 1997, Joe had the pleasure of meeting five U.S. presidents and many foreign dignitaries.

Although retired, Joe wasn’t ready to hang up his spurs. He felt he still had much to share. In 2004, he found the USS Midway Museum.

Joe with the Tophatters on USS Tarawa (CV-40) in the Pacific after World War II.

“I was visiting the Midway with my family shortly after it had opened,” said Joe. “I was on the flight deck describing some of the planes to my grandson when I noticed, all of a sudden, that there was a big crowd gathered around me listening to what I was saying. My daughter told me I should become a volunteer on the ship.”

Joe did just that and over the last 18 years has accumulated more than 5,800 volunteer hours on Midway as a docent and currently gives talks to museum guests every Tuesday morning about his Navy experience during and shortly after World War II.

For Joe, becoming a Midway volunteer has been a blessing.

“I think becoming a docent has given me long life,” said Joe, who recently celebration his 95th birthday. “Being a volunteer on Midway is the greatest thing I could think of after retiring. I’m alive now and I can say that honestly that I owe it all to the Midway. If there wasn’t a Midway Museum, there may not be a Joe Neves still kicking around today.”

The USS Midway Museum’s flight deck was turned into a summertime Santa’s workshop when The Home Depot Foundation came to town.

Home Depot volunteers from all over the country built playhouses, picnic tables, dog beds, outdoor benches and chairs, and planters all destined to become early Christmas presents for the families of military members and veterans, as well as military and veteran support organizations.

Millions of school American children in the 1950s and 1960s remember the phrase “see Spot run” from the introduction books that helped them learn to read while in first grade. Today, however, “see Spot run” has evolved to “see Spot climb steps, jump rope, open doors, search and identify, capture data and even throw a switch and drag a cement block.”

Built by Boston Dynamics, Spot is a dog-like robot designed to navigate myriad different terrains with exceptional mobility to conduct a variety of missions including conducting surveys, collecting information and inspecting equipment. The U.S. Navy is currently studying Spot’s capabilities to see if it’s a fit for the naval service.

“The Navy is always looking for tools and techniques that can help it accomplish its mission better, faster, cheaper, and safer,” said Dr. Mark Bilinski, director science and technology at the Navy Warfare Information Center (NIWC) in San Diego. “Spot shows promise for being able to potentially do a lot of things like going into hazardous spaces instead of a sailor or automating mundane tasks to free up sailors to do more important things.”

Spot the Robot Dog dazzles Midway visitors.

Spot, weighing approximately 70 pounds, is designed to go into locations too dangerous or risky for humans, and can operate in extreme weather and temperature conditions. Programmed with obstacle avoidance and height detection that maps in front of the robot, Spot can determine what its next step should be without input from its operator, and does so in a nano-second.

Already operational in 35 countries, Spot is currently being used to collect data on structural and safety issues in Italy at the ancient ruins of Pompeii and by the Ukrainian military to remove mortar shells and cluster munitions in formerly Russian-controlled areas near its capital city of Kyiv.

In an effort to put Spot through its paces, USS Midway Museum jumped at the chance to help the Navy with its testing.

“Midway offers a quick and easy access platform to test new systems and equipment that can be rapidly deployed for the active duty military,” said Len Santiago, Midway’s chief engineer. “We provide a unique opportunity for Navy scientists to investigate emerging technology.”

Boston Dynamics has been developing robots that, due to their natural movements, have the ability to appropriately react in complicated and dynamic environments. The Navy already knew from earlier testing that Spot could navigate in cramped spaces, so it wanted to see how it would operate on a ship.

“We wanted to see how Spot would perform in shipboard environments,” said Mark, who has been with NIWC for a decade. “We suspected it would perform well, but you never really know unless you try it out. You’re not going to encounter hatches and knee knockers anywhere else.”

Spot hit the deck running – literally. The quadrupedal robot spent hours on Midway traversing much of the ship from narrow passageways, awkward hatches and tricky stairwells to different surfaces on the flight and hangar decks.

Spot checks out Midway’s berthing compartment.

“It did really well,” said Mark, a San Diegan who graduated from Vista High School. “It had no problem with the various surfaces, from nonskid to deck plates, and it navigated passageways with ease, adjusting for and overcoming the knee knockers, which are more imposing when you’re as close to the ground as Spot is.”

“It additionally did really well in extremely tight quarters, in areas not much larger than itself,” said Dan Jennings, an engineer who works in unmanned systems integration and testing at NIWC. “We also tested the ‘touch to go feature’ around some very tight obstacles that it had trouble with in manual control. It plotted itself a path around the obstacle with ease.”

Spot helping Midway’s safety team.

While Spot was impressing Navy evaluators, it was also wowing surprised Midway visitors, many of whom had a hard time believing what they were seeing.

“Spot was adored by staff, docents, children, and parents alike,” said Dan, who has been with NIWC for six years and earned a mechanical engineering degree from San Diego State University. “There were many photo ops and many parents encouraging their children that this is the kind of thing they can do if they stay focused at school.”

Midway proved to be an ideal setting for real-world testing for the Navy.

“The Midway has been instrumental in advancing our research and development efforts,” said, said Mark, who holds a doctorate in mathematics. “It is simply amazing and is an indispensable resource in helping us speed capability to the fleet. The Midway Museum continues to serve and we’re thrilled to have such an excellent partner.”

For more than 15 years, I’ve been creating events on the USS Midway Museum that bring awareness and honor to our military veterans and those who still serve in uniform. However, nothing I’ve ever done was as emotional and memorable for me as my experience as a guardian for a group of Vietnam War veterans on the most recent Honor Flight to Washington D.C.

Honor Flight San Diego is a non-profit organization that flies military veterans to the nation’s capital to visit the memorials devoted to their service and sacrifice. This Honor Flight was dedicated to 85 former members of Navy Helicopter Attack Squadron 3 (HAL-3), nicknamed the Seawolves.

HAL-3 was an all-volunteer squadron that supported naval special warfare operations and the mobile riverine forces during the Vietnam War. It was very dangerous duty. Forty-four Seawolves sacrificed their lives in service to their country.

I had the privilege of escorting three former Seawolves helicopter pilots on this incredible journey – Bill Martin, Al Bacanskas, and Dick White.

In one jam-packed day, we visited Arlington National Cemetery, Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall and many other memorials. The trip was loaded with special moments, many laughs, war stories and lots of tears.

Vanessa was the guardian for (l to r) Seawolves Al Bacanskas, Bill Martin and Dick White during their Honor Flight to Washington D.C.

I was fascinated to learn the Seawolves were the Navy’s most decorated Vietnam War squadron. They flew high-risk combat missions using hand-me-down UH-1 “Huey” helicopters from the Army.

Obtaining intelligence on the enemy was vital for the Seawolves. Bill Martin, now 91, was an amateur magician and had a unique way of gathering this critical information. He carried a folding magic table, collapsible top hat, and a bag of tricks in his helicopter. By performing magic for local villagers, he gained their trust. This allowed his crew to mingle with the villagers and pick up valuable intelligence on Viet Cong (VC) activity in the area. 

The VC eventually found out about Bill’s shows and put a bounty on his head. On one occasion, he was suddenly grabbed by two men who tied him up. Fortunately, Bill had studied escape techniques in a Houdini book, and was able to get out of the ropes.

Life after Vietnam offered many Seawolves unique opportunities. For Al Bacanskas, it took him to Iran, where he found himself teaching Prince Shahriar Shafiq of the Iranian Imperial Navy how to fly helicopters. When the Navy initially asked Al if he would go, he said, “Where’s Iran?”

Al, who spent a year in Tehran, actually outranked the prince, who was only a captain in the Iranian Navy. During a training flight one day, the prince asked Al to fly over a river that was full of alligators. The prince pulled out his machine gun taking aim at the alligators. Al said he couldn’t see the damage, but he didn’t think the prince hit any of his targets.

Although claiming to be a simpler man, Dick White’s military career was also full of adventure. He started as an electronic tech radar specialist and later became a pilot logging more than 1,200 flight hours. Dick also served on an ice breaker in Siberia. “You can’t buy those experiences,” he told me. “From the age of 17, the things I’ve seen, places I’ve been, I have no regrets and I’d do it all over again.”

It saddens me that these incredible patriots fought for our freedoms, yet were vilified when they returned from Vietnam. I look at Bill, Al and Dick and admire their continued faith and love for our country, and am inspired by their stories, camaraderie, and humor.

I’m so thankful to Honor Flight for finally making it right for these men. They finally got the hero’s homecoming they deserved.

It was an overwhelming moment to return to San Diego alongside the Seawolves, and see the cheering crowd of grateful American men, women, and children giving them the recognition they should have received decades ago. This was a much-needed healing trip for the Seawolves and certainly a life-changing experience for me.

Vietnam War veterans interested in participating in future Honor Flights can visit

The Seawolves Honor Flight group gathers near the Lincoln Memorial.

America’s missile program took flight in the closing days of World War II with the establishment of the White Sands Proving Grounds in the high desert of south-central New Mexico in July 1945. Early U.S. military rocket tests proved successful, but with limited capabilities.

Enter the V-2 rocket.

Developed by the Germans before the start of World War II, more than 3,000 V-2 rockets would ultimately rain down on England, France and Belgium for several months starting in late 1944 killing an estimated 9,000 civilians and military personnel. Following the cessation of hostilities in Europe in May 1945, hundreds of components of captured Nazi V-2s were brought to the United States accelerating the country’s fledging ballistic missile program. The first test launch of V-2 was conducted at White Sands on April 16, 1946.

Over the next year and half, nearly 30 V-2s lifted off from Launch Complex 33. It wasn’t long, however, before discussions began on the potential of firing a large rocket from a Navy warship.

A dummy “test” V-2 rocket is loaded on Midway.

After preliminary conferences between naval officials and ordnance personnel at White Sands along with the German rocket scientists who had defected to the United States after the war, Adm. Chester Nimitz, then the chief of naval operations, determined it would be feasible to launch a V-2 missile from the flight deck of an aircraft carrier at sea.

On May 22, 1947, Operation Sandy was established, and the USS Midway was designated as the aircraft carrier to conduct the V-2’s test launch. Rear Adm. Daniel Gallery, the assistant chief of naval operations for guided missiles, oversaw the project.

“The primary purpose of Operation Sandy was to find out some of the answers to the problem of launching a larger bombardment type rocket from a ship at sea,” said Gallery, who commanded a naval task force during World War II that captured a German U-boat off the western coast of Africa in June 1944. “Lessons learned from this operation will be applied to the future design of guided missiles for naval use and to design a new type of warship, the guided missile ship, which may eventually be as important to the fleet as the present-day aircraft carrier.”

Within a few weeks, a select group of officers and enlisted personnel from Midway headed to White Sands for intensive training in the preparation, handling and launching of a V-2 rocket. Ultimately, the Army’s ordnance department was directed to provide two live rockets for the test launch and a dummy V-2 for continued training purposes on the ship.

The date for the launch on Midway was set – Sept. 6, 1947.

By August, the Midway’s crew training was complete, and preparation had begun to ship the rockets and support equipment to the East Coast. Midway was berthed at the Norfolk Naval Shipyard adjacent to the railroad tracks and cranes needed to get the V-2s to and on board the ship.

On Sept. 2, with all the gear aboard and preparations finalized, Midway, along with four Navy destroyers, put to sea and headed to the launch area approximately 250 miles south of Bermuda.

At 3:53 p.m. on Sept. 6, the rocket was ignited. Two seconds after launch, the V-2 unexpectedly tilted starboard 45 degrees continuing its liftoff in the direction of Midway’s flight-deck island.

A V-2 rocket test launched from Midway barely misses the carrier’s island.

While most of Midway’s crew was below deck, Neal Casey, one of the ship’s fire control technicians, was part of the tracking team assigned to follow the V-2 once it launched and call its range down to the plotting room. Positioned on the carrier’s island near the bridge, Casey estimated the rocket missed the superstructure by 100 yards.

“I had no problem tracking the rocket,” said Casey, an 18-year-old Oklahoma native. “It almost hit the island when it launched.”

Also on the bridge was helmsman Gordon Vandiver. He too had a front row seat for the launch watching as the rocket veered towards the island after takeoff.

“The thing was headed straight for us,” recalled Vandiver, an Ohio native who had just turned 18. “You never saw so many scrambled-egg officers dive for cover in all your life. A lot of brass turned green in an instant.”

Within a few seconds, the V-2 returned to a vertical attitude and rose normally. Shortly thereafter, however, the rocket’s flight profile became erratic and it went out of control and broke up at approximately 12,000 feet. The rocket broke into three main sections and fell into the ocean a little more than three miles from Midway.

While the V-2 did not obtain the desired trajectory, it satisfied the major objectives of the test and was considered a success.

“This experiment marked the beginning of a new era in naval weapons,” said Gallery in the operation’s after-action report. “Operation Sandy demonstrated the practicability of launching the war-proven German V-2 missile from a modern aircraft carrier without interfering with the primary purpose of that vessel. The rocket was successfully launched for the first time from a ship underway at sea. It was the opening phase in an extensive program leading to the adaptation of naval vessels and the logistics of naval operations to the use of this new weapon.”