Karl Zingheim, Midway Historian


In 1963, the U.S. Navy considered the USS Midway (CV-41) and her sister ships, the USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CV-42) and USS Coral Sea (CV-43), worthy of extraordinary modernization to keep them on a par with the newer Forrestal-class carriers. At issue was the ability to upgrade the three Midway-class aircraft carriers to handle the much heavier aircraft being developed, as well as to absorb the vast improvements in naval electronics. Planners expected to render the three older ships as near-contemporaries of the big-deck carriers for a combined cost of a single new supercarrier.

Midway shifted from her homeport at Naval Air Station Alameda to the nearby Hunter’s Point Naval Shipyard on Feb. 15, 1966. The naval yard by this time was jammed with projects. Not only were resources at the shipyard stretched thin, but there was also a number of industrial factors taking hold in the 1960s, along with problems peculiar to Hunter’s Point. This volatile combination produced an explosively controversial rebuilding that consumed the rest of the decade and resulted in a massive cost overrun for the carrier’s renovation.

The ship’s fuel was offloaded and old equipment was cut away or unbolted, while preparations for opening the engineering spaces and voids proceeded. On Sept. 9, 1967, Midway was moved into drydock where she spent 15 months on blocks as hull upgrades and the installation of new equipment progressed.

Midway in the drydock at Hunter’s Point Naval Shipyard.

Hardly any mechanical or electric aspect of the ship was left untouched. The entire machinery plant was overhauled or replaced. A different main propulsion fuel system was plumbed and the aviation gasoline capacity was removed, and an exclusive JP-5 jet fuel system installed.

A jet-engine maintenance center arose on the fantail, and provisions were made to support newer and bigger jet aircraft. The ship received a new inertial navigation system as well as more powerful steam catapults and upgraded arresting gear engines.

To offer more landing run-out for heavier aircraft, the flight deck angle was extended and offset 13 degrees, the largest on any carrier, and a new Fresnel lens landing system was erected. All three aircraft elevators, moved to the deck edge, were enlarged to handle a 100,000 pound capacity. All told, the flight deck was enlarged to slightly more than four acres, a 43 percent increase.

Midway is recommissioned in 1970 following four-year modernization program.

Equally breathtaking was the installation of the Naval Tactical Data System (NTDS). Modern airborne, missile, and submarine threats demanded the centralization of sensor inputs from escorting ships and aircraft, which required updated computer networking to make it happen in real time.

All this produced a carrier that was practically on a par with the newer big-deck carriers, but at a massive cost in time and money. Over the course of four years, what had been projected to cost some $87 million had ballooned to $202 million. This cost overrun was due to several factors, including inflation fluctuations, skilled workforce turnover, new environmental and labor legislation, and an expansion in administration costs. Additionally, the Navy altered contract conditions and design requirements in the midst of construction.

After reporting as Midway’s project officer in 1968, Capt. James Kaune immediately began grappling with the realities of the problems. He also discovered a general lack of urgency at the shipyard resulting in subpar productivity. His primary goal was to get the new and improved Midway back to the fleet. While producing accurate time and cost forecasts for Midway’s transformation was daunting, Kaune eventually organized the myriad projects into four successive phases: undocking, machinery plant light-off, compartment completions, and trials and testing.

Kaune set to work imposing an awareness of time limitation and sorting priorities. Delegation to subordinates and assigning deadlines for jobs quickened the modernization’s progress. Fear of mistakes was alleviated by an expectation of finishing a job with leniency for honest errors.

By the end of 1968, seawater lapped at Midway’s hull once again as it moved out of dry dock. Six months later, electronics testing began, which progressed ultimately to the main plant light-off.

The crew began reporting aboard as 1969 concluded and a rigorous series of tests, including sea trials, began. Equipment, supplies, and furnishings arrived and had to be sorted and installed throughout a ship now boasting more than two thousand compartments. Midway was recommissioned on Jan. 31, 1970 and returned to the fleet that summer.

However, the attempt to boost the strength of the carrier force by making Midway and her sister ships near-peers to newer carriers ultimately proved a false economy. The cost overruns on just Midway nearly covered the cost for a nuclear carrier. Because of this, plans to repeat the process with Roosevelt and Coral Sea were cancelled. Coral Sea got by with modest upgrades, while Roosevelt was decommissioned in 1977.