After the USS Midway (CV-41) was decommissioned, albeit with great fanfare, in San Diego in 1992, she was unceremoniously towed to Bremerton, Wash., where she quietly faded into the ghost fleet of forgotten Navy ships at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard’s Naval Inactive Ship Maintenance Facility. There she rested pierside, along with more than 20 other retired Navy warships, slowly wasting away. 

A dozen years later, the ship was given a second chance at life, this time as a floating naval museum back in San Diego. But after more than a decade of sitting unprotected in the harsh weather of the Pacific Northwest, Midway had decayed to a shell of her former self. Herculean maintenance and restoration would be needed to ready the ship for the public.

An advance team from the San Diego Aircraft Carrier Museum Association traveled to Washington to assess Midway’s condition several months prior to her arrival in San Diego.

Fo’c’sle before and now

“When we got to the ship in Bremerton in 2003, it was a complete rust bucket with piles of obsolete equipment,” said Scott McGaugh, Midway’s original marketing director and a current member of the museum’s board of directors. “We knew we had our work cut out for us if we were going to transform Midway into a museum.”

During this advance trip, hundreds of photographs were taken of the flight and hangar decks, as well as countless numbers of individual spaces throughout the ship documenting the carrier’s ragged condition.

For 20 years, this collection of pre-museum photographs rested undisturbed in Midway’s curatorial department. That all changed when Rudy Shappee got his hands on them.

Enlisted mess deck before and now

“I heard that Dave Hanson in curatorial had a series of photos taken as part of an inspection trip to Bremerton,” said Rudy, the assistant director of the Midway Institute for Teachers. “He informed me that there were more than 300 photos taken of spaces aboard by shipyard personnel. I got the idea that these photos would be the perfect beginning of the story of our restoration of this great ship and proof that Midway Magic is still alive and well.”

Rudy believed if he could identify photos of existing exhibit areas today and then match them to the original photos taken in the same spaces two decades ago, he would be able to tell a great story of the more than 20 years of labor by hundreds of staff and volunteers who restored Midway to a condition similar to when she was part of the Navy’s active-duty fleet.

His first challenge, however, was to identify the locations of spaces on the ship where the photos had been taken during the inspection in Bremerton. He approached this predicament as a visual detective using compartment shapes; structural components such as piping, door and hatches; and bulkhead-painted bullseyes (shipboard numerical map placards) to identify the locations on the ship where the inspection photos were taken. It was once he was able to make progress on accurately identifying these locations, that his project really took flight.

“That’s when I really got excited about the project because at this point, I had more than a collection of photos, I now had a story,” said Rudy, who began volunteering in 2001, years before Midway arrived in San Diego. “Being the historian that I am, I decided I would move beyond the archeological identification of the spaces to the history of their evolution from cold steel to vibrant exhibits of life aboard the Midway.”

Flight deck before and now

Rudy started with the easiest to identify spaces like the officers wardroom, sick bay and chapel, then moved onto spaces that were more difficult to distinguish. To overcome this conundrum, he physically walked the ship using old ship’s drawing and photographs to pinpoint their locations.

After months of pain staking investigation, Rudy was able to classify more than 85 percent of the original photographs. After selecting what he thought were the 100 best to tell the story, he needed to initiate phase two of the project by bringing in a photographer.

“I reached out to Felix Zamora, a volunteer who I knew to be an excellent photographer to help me pair the before photos with after shots,” said Rudy, who has amassed nearly 21,000 volunteer hours. “I had worked with Felix on a previous project and knew he was very professional and could do the job I needed done to make the project come alive.”

“My initial thought was, wow, what a great idea,” said Felix, a volunteer photographer on Midway since 2012. “His requirements for the after pictures were clear, there could be no deviation. I was honored that Rudy had confidence in me to accomplish the task.”

Carrier Air Traffic Control Center before and now

Felix went to work immediately and was soon sending Rudy multiple sets of current photos to match with the originals. In a majority of cases the pairings were almost identical, however, in a few cases, like Cafe 41 or the Voices of Midway theater, the physical structure of the ship had been changed.

“I knew this was going to be a challenge, but the project has a great end goal,” said Felix, who has nearly 2,500 volunteer hours. “It seems simple enough, but the after pictures had to be in the same camera position as the before picture. Not as easy as you might think.”

From Rudy’s perspective, the project can benefit the Midway in myriad ways. His plan is to provide the initial presentation to the museum’s staff and then amp it up from there.

“I believe the presentation could be adapted for use by the volunteers, the membership, the board, and even the public at large,” said Rudy, who was a member of Midway’s aircraft restoration team even before the ship arrived in San Diego and opened to the public as a museum. “As I have been constructing the project, I have thought of using the presentation as a book, as a presentation at the Historical Naval Ships Association conference next year when it’s in San Diego, and as a presentation to our membership as a part of an evening event. Of course, I know I will be able to use it during our 20th anniversary next year.”

Engine Control Room before and now

For Rudy and Felix, this project reflects the passion they have for Midway.

“It’s actually about a love affair I have with this lady that first appeared in tatters and that I have been able to dress in the finery she deserves,” said Rudy, who still volunteers as a docent every Friday afternoon. “I have done and will continue to do the work that will best lend itself to the telling of the Midway story so our nation will not forget the sacrifices we all made to carry out the missions necessary to keep America strong and free.”

“Seeing the before and after photos of the Midway demonstrates what can be accomplished by a group of individuals with a common goal,” said Felix, who spent three month photographing spaces around the ship. “There is a story to tell and these photos tell that that story.”

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