Emerging from the pandemic and shifting to a gradual resumption of normality aboard Midway, it seems appropriate to reflect on the carrier’s past intervals of transformation where she twice arose from dormancy to rejoin the fleet new and improved.

Over the course of Midway’s nearly 50 years of active duty service, steady progress in naval aviation required substantive upgrades to the carrier’s original configuration that resulted in her departing fleet operations, transferring her crew and shutting down her complex machinery for years. 

The first such occasion occurred in the mid-1950s when the Midway entered a two-year reconstruction at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Washington.

 Rapid advancements in naval aviation technology following World War II severely strained aircraft carrier capabilities, and what worked reasonably well in the piston-engine era was becoming intolerant in the jet age. Centerline flight decks and mounting difficulties in launching and safely recovering the heavier and faster jets threatened to doom carrier aviation on the cusp of the supersonic age. 

Fortunately, a trio of breakthroughs by British naval innovators in the form of steam catapults, an optical landing system, and an angled flight deck, preserved the aircraft carrier. The U.S. Navy’s post World War II straight-deck carriers needed to change dramatically and quickly. Beginning in 1952, veteran carriers were gradually taken out of the deployment schedule and sent to four shipyards capable of handling such challenging rebuilds. 

With the Korean War winding down, naval planners still struggled to keep up a robust global Cold-War deployment cycle, while at the same time sending older ships to the yards for multi-year conversions.

Although only 10 years old, Midway arrived at naval shipyard in Bremerton in 1955 to commence a near-total reconstruction of the ship. Although the main machinery plant was unaffected, practically every other system and structure aboard was. A thicket of scaffolding surrounded the high-and-dry carrier, while cutters’ torches blazed and overhead crane arms swung back and forth over the ensuing months. 

Gone were vestiges of the ship’s original structure such as the hull armor belt and four, five-inch gun mounts. Newly installed were a widened hull, improved propeller mountings, a fully enclosed bow, new steam catapults, and upgrades for arresting gear, jet blast deflectors, and jet fuel capacity. The most notable change was the extension of the port side of the flight deck beyond the side of the hull to create an angled landing area for the Navy’s increasingly jet-dominated airwing. 

The work progressed well into the summer of 1957 when it was time to assemble a new crew. Selected as the Midway’s 16th commanding officer was Capt. Francis Neussle, a North Dakotan and the son of a state supreme court judge. Battle tested, Neussle had commanded the light seaplane tender USS Gannet during World War II that was sunk by a German U-boat near Bermuda.

USS Midway in dry dock at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in 1955.

Joining Neussle were some 2,300 other men, primarily young sailors who had never been to sea. Virtually all were unfamiliar with the essentially new Midway, so the laborious task of tracing new systems, determining watch bills, and drill upon drill occupied the remainder of that autumn. Steam catapults and optical landing equipment were novelties, and new methods were devised to operate and maintain these cutting-edge systems. 

Finally, in September 1957, the re-commissioning ceremony took place on the ship’s hangar deck. Arrayed along one side was the crew, while invited guests sat in rows before a bunting-draped platform bearing Neussle and dignitaries from the local government and naval commands. After a two-year absence, Midway was back in the fleet.

The next year saw a grueling trial of tests, drills, and readiness inspections, culminating in a refresher training examination off the coast of San Diego. Eventually, the modernized Midway called Naval Air Station Alameda her new homeport and starting in the summer of 1958, she prepared for her first deployment as a Pacific Fleet carrier. Re-emerged. 

More than 60 years later, with the COVID pandemic ebbing in the United States, here’s to yet another fresh start for Midway as she continues to serve as one of the world’s most popular naval ship museums.

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