The night USS Midway sailed into danger

July is the month Americans celebrate their country’s independence. Fireworks, parades and family picnics carry the moment. However, for the USS Midway, July 1980 was hardly a time for joyful patriotic remembrance. A near catastrophic incident at sea had the carrier teetering on the edge of calamity. 

On the night of July 29, Midway was transiting through the Balabac Strait, the passage that separates the Philippines’ Palawan Island from the northern Borneo coast, as it headed westward toward the Indian Ocean for a three-month deployment. The carrier’s running lights and radar were turned off as part of a training exercise to avoid detection during a simulated combat situation.

“It was about 2300 (11 p.m.), when a trembling sensation ran throughout the ship as if there was an earthquake occurring right under the hull,” said Bruce Lonardo, who was a 17-year-old airman with Attack Squadron 115 (VA-115). “Suddenly, the ship’s collision alarm blurted out its pulsating scream followed by ‘General quarters! General quarters! All hands man your battle stations! – this is no drill!’”

Earlier that night, as Midway passed through the narrow strait, the Panamanian freighter Cactus was spotted approaching from the west. 

“We had been tracking the Cactus for some 25 miles,” said Shawn Dittman, who was the Boatswain’s Mate of the Watch (BMOW) on the bridge that evening. “All lookouts were posted and they fed a steady stream of reporting on Cactus to the bridge through sound-powered phone talkers.” 

It was determined that the merchant ship would safely pass a mile south of the carrier. However, at the last minute and without warning, the Cactus unexpectedly veered left, directly into Midway’s path. The carrier took immediate evasive maneuvers, but it was too late and the freighter slammed into the ship’s port side.

“As soon as I got up to the hangar deck, I could hear an ear-screeching sound of metal scraping against metal,” said Bruce, who was in one of the squadron’s crew lounges writing a letter to his parents when the Cactus hit Midway. “I looked in the direction of where the sound was coming from, near aircraft elevator three, and I actually saw another ship scraping past us. Ramming us for lack of any better description.”

The Cactus had impacted Midway amidship slicing through its hull directly under the overhanging flight deck. The collision ruptured fuel lines, damaged an aircraft elevator and smashed the ship’s optical landing system. More critically, the carrier’s liquid oxygen plant was shattered leaking hazardous liquid oxygen on the deck in proximity to where fuel was also escaping it busted pipes. 

Significant hull damage to Midway just forward of aircraft elevator 3 as a result of the collision.

“Liquid oxygen is a very volatile and combustible agent whenever it comes in contact with heat, other chemicals, or petroleum agents such as fuel,” remembered Bruce, who had only arrived on Midway several months earlier. “Both of these agents were leaking heavily in the vicinity of each other, creating an impending catastrophe. Fortunately, the damage control teams were able to keep the two agents separated.”

Tragically, however, two Midway sailors working in the liquid oxygen plant were killed, while three others were injured.

On the flight deck, multiple planes were also damaged or destroyed.

“I was in our squadron Ready Room at the time of the collision,” said retired Navy Capt. Gary Hughes, who was the commanding officer of Fighter Squadron 151 (VF-151) aboard Midway. “We didn’t know exactly what was happening, but we could see the chaos on the flight deck from the flight-deck camera on our Ready Room TV.”

“I had struck below to my berthing area and was preparing to go to chow when all the alarms sounded,” said David Meyers, who was an airman recruit in Midway’s aircraft fuels division. “I immediately went to the flight deck where the Cactus was still sliding alongside the Midway. The crunch had damaged aircraft on the flight deck, so I grabbed a fire hose and started dragging it over to the aircraft in case it caught fire.”

It was a long and tense night, and it was only the next morning that the crew was finally able to see extent of the damage. 

“What I saw looked like the aftermath scene right out of a war movie,” recalled Bruce. “The portside catwalk was no longer there. The landing lights were gone, along with the landing signal officer station. Aircraft elevator three was attached to the ship only by its giant greasy lifting cables. And there was 50-foot gash on the portside hull.”

“Later, I went to the flight deck to see the damage,” said Gary, whose squadron of F-4J Phantom II aircraft suffered the most damage. “One of our planes was missing its tail and two or three others were badly damaged.”

Midway immediately diverted to U.S. Naval Base Subic Bay in the Philippines where it underwent several weeks of repairs before deploying back to the Indian Ocean. While the carrier was once again fully operational, for the crew, the painful memory of the collision lingered long after the incident.

“It was hard to believe that this had actually happened to the Midway,” said Bruce. “To say that there was a surreal connotation to this event would be an understatement. The damage control team literally saved the Midway and probably all of us aboard her that night.”

An exhibit chronicling the collision, and the near disaster that fateful night more than 40 years ago can be seen on the USS Midway Museum’s hangar deck.

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