Military service profoundly impacts the lives of many veterans through a deep-seated sense of patriotism, enduring friendships and lasting memories.
For Lee Owen, his tour of duty on the USS Midway is as vivid in his mind today as it was more than 75 years ago when he actually walked the carrier’s flight deck.
“I am prideful to be able to say I served on the Midway and I feel I was lucky to have served on the biggest ship in the world at the time,” said Owen, who recently celebrated his 100th birthday. “Just the fact that I served our country, all those years ago, to make us truly free, yet today.”
Owen attributes a decades-long fitness program to his longevity, but he knows that reaching life’s centennial was also guided by fortune’s smile early in his naval career. He was originally assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Franklin (CV-13) that saw significant combat in the Pacific theater during the later stages of World War II.
On March 19, 1945, the Franklin was struck by two 550-pound bombs dropped from a Japanese warplane resulting in extensive damage to the carrier and a tremendous number of casualties amongst its crew. Nearly 1,000 of the ship’s officers and sailors were killed or wounded in the attack.
Before being sent to the Franklin, however, Owen’s assignment was changed and instead, he became a member of the original crew, or a plank owner, of the soon-to-be-commissioned USS Midway.
“I was lucky I didn’t go on that ship,” reflected Owen, who joined the Navy in 1942. “I lost some dear friends who were on that ship and to this day I still cry and get very upset when I tell this story.”
Owen reported aboard Midway in March 1945, seven months before the ship was commissioned. An aviation machinists mate, he worked on F4U-4 Corsairs as part of Bomber Fighter Squadron 74 (VBF-71), one of the first squadrons to operate from the carrier. He served on board the ship until he left the Navy a year later.
Although it’s been nearly eight decades since he last set foot on the ship, the sounds, smells and sights of Midway remain fresh in his psyche. One of his most vivid memories was when an aircraft from his squadron crashed into the ocean.
“I was waiting on my plane to come in and it wasn’t in the groove,” remembered Owen, a native of Millerstown, Pa. “The pilot waited too long to keep going and he was too low. His plane went down right beside the ship, and I could see the pilot climb out and get into his raft. Luckily, a destroyer picked him up.”
While his memories continue to thrive, Owen has very little memorabilia from the ship that has survived the last 77 years. A few months before his birthday, his daughter, Anne Revitsky, contacted Midway for some help.
“I really wanted to reach out to the Midway in search of some special photos of him on deck of the Midway with his flight crew,” said Anne. “I worked closely with Karen Garst and she was wonderful in assisting me. While we never found a picture of dad with his flight crew on deck, she sent out a package and also had his plank owner certificate reprinted for him.”
“It was my honor to help with Lee’s big birthday,” said Karen Garst, the museum’s membership coordinator and Midway veteran liaison. “I was so glad to see that he enjoyed his Midway gifts, most especially his plank owner certificate.”
“You all have been so kind and thoughtful,” said Anne upon receiving the Midway gifts sent for her dad’s birthday. “I was just beside myself.”
Surrounded by multiple generations of his family, Lee celebrated his centennial birthday at the Bellwood-Antis Community Park near Altoona, Pa. The surprise gifts from Midway included a personal letter from the museum’s CEO, a Midway baseball cap and challenge coins, and a reprinted plank owner certificate that is traditionally presented to members of a ship’s original crew. Lee had, unfortunately, lost the original certificate years ago.
“He choked up and a tear came to his eye as he struggled to finish reading the letter thanking him for his service and wishing him a happy birthday,” said Anne, a computer operator and human relations specialist who retired in 2021. “He’s always been very emotional, and this letter really moved him. But when he got to the plank owner certificate, that was the icing on the cake. His smile went from ear to ear and his excitement was indescribable.”
With his 100th birthday now in the rearview mirror, Lee said he’s ready to make a trip from Pennsylvania back to Midway.
“I’d love to visit,” said Lee, who retired as a tool and die maker in 1988. “And my daughter is going to make that happen, hopefully this year.”