Midway Currents Winter 2023


The Legacy of Mac McLaughlin

The USS Midway Museum was an experiment. And in the minds of some, a very risky one.

After a decade-long effort by the fledgling San Diego Aircraft Carrier Museum organization to bring a decommissioned Navy flattop to San Diego as a naval ship museum, the USS Midway arrived in January 2004 to much fanfare. While the excitement and enthusiasm were very high, for those working behind the scenes, the job ahead was equally formidable. 

The nearly 60-year-old carrier may have just gotten a fresh coat of paint on its exterior, but there wasn’t much else to offer future museum visitors. Other than a few restored historic military aircraft, the ship lacked just about everything required to become a successful museum including most of the basic necessities like power, water and bathrooms.

The schedule for readying the ship for its public debut left no time for the museum’s overjoyed founders to rest on their laurels. The grand opening was only six months away. 

“We were a band of strangers when Midway arrived at Navy Pier,” remembered Scott McGaugh, Midway’s first marketing director who joined the museum’s planning group as a volunteer long before the ship was towed into San Diego Bay. 

Retired Navy Rear Adm. Riley Mixson, who commanded the USS Midway in the mid-1980s, had served commendably as the museum group’s executive director, but had no intention of staying on as its president and CEO.

It was felt the museum would benefit from its new chief executive officer having senior military experience – an individual who understood what it would take to refurbish a rundown ship, which had been rotting away for the previous 12 years, and turn it into a self-sustaining and successful tourist attraction. Piece of cake.

A search was launched, interviews were conducted and an offer was made. However, the first candidate decided not to accept the CEO position. Time to shift to Plan B.

Mac McLaughlin, who had just retired as the head of the U.S. Naval Reserve Forces, will be the first to tell you he wasn’t Midway’s initial choice. The museum’s new board of directors, however, felt the former two-star admiral was a very strong “second draft pick.”

Mac with Brad Paisley.
Mac with Larry King.

“In Mac we saw a natural leader and team builder,” recalled Scott. “Overhauling Midway was no more important than building a crew from scratch in six months.”

“Mac has been a perfect CEO for the Midway Museum,” said Malin Burnham, the prominent San Diego philanthropist who became the museum’s board chair shortly before it opened in 2004. “I told him he was building an icon for San Diego. The rest is history.”

Over the last 18 years, with Mac at the helm, Midway has gone from 70,000 tons of rust and peeling paint to the world’s most popular and successful floating naval ship museum. According to Tripadvisor, it remains the number one thing to do in San Diego.

This did not happen because Mac became an overnight museum curator, but because of his vision and the ability to create an embracing culture that quickly put Midway on the path of becoming America’s Living Symbol of Freedom.

“He focused on building a culture and values that have ultimately driven Midway to unimagined success,” said Scott. “From day one to now, he has remained tremendously accessible. The result has been remarkable crew loyalty that has been the bedrock of Midway’s growth to prominence.”

Mac’s impersonation of Elvis.
Mac channeling his inner Bob Hope.

Mac’s 31-year naval career taught him that the best leaders are those who enable others. He believes strongly in the positive and uplifting impact of the servant leader. He’s been known to refer to himself as the CEO: Cheerleading Executive Officer.

“Mac truly understands the power of empowerment,” said Jim Reily, the museum’s docent director who has worked with Mac for more than a dozen years. “He sets directions and then trusts his staff and volunteers to execute. No micromanagement. To me, this has been a key to the museum’s success.”

“He is very good at providing direction to his team and then letting them run,” said Ben Clay, the board chair of the USS Midway Foundation. “Mac provides leadership, states his vision and expects his team to develop and deliver. He readily gives credit to his staff, volunteers and board members.”

Mac’s team often spoke of his instinctive understanding of how important every volunteer and member of the staff was to the museum’s operation.

Always at home on the golf course.

“I think everyone who had the chance to work alongside Mac felt they have had the unique opportunity to do something that made a difference,” said former Midway education director, Sara Hanscom, who worked with Mac for 18 years. “It didn’t matter who you were or what position you held, whether it be behind-the scenes, front-line, staff or volunteer, he ensured you knew how vital you were to Midway’s mission. Mac has a remarkable way making you feel like you’re a special part of the team.”

Midway’s achievements as a museum, education center, events venue and San Diego icon revolved heavily around the development of a strong and passionate volunteer corps. For Mac, ensuring the nearly 800 volunteers knew they had as much ownership of the museum as the paid staff was critical.

Translating Mac-isms!

  • “That’s my opinion but I’m not sure I agree with it.” (questioning his own opinion)
  •  “It’s time for me to go simulate working conditions.” (heading to the office)
  • “We’ll murder board it.” (staff review before making a decision)
  • “I think it’s time for me to pull chocks.” (ready to go home)
  • “I need a SITREP.” (an update on the issue)
  • “He’s S-I-Q.” (sick in quarters or at home)
  • “Give me the latest gouge?” (what’s the scoop) 

“Frankly, working with Mac has been a total pleasure and it’s just one of the reasons I continue to be a volunteer,” said Todd Hyde, who has more than 7,300 volunteer hours since becoming a docent in 2011. “By talking with, not at, the docents, he keeps us in the know and makes us feel integral to Midway’s success. We all have ownership. I am very proud to have served with him. He made my Midway days some of the most rewarding times in my life.”

Mac’s proven recipe of caring for and supporting his staff and volunteers translated directly into providing all who visit Midway one of the finest and most unique museum experiences possible.

“He has been a true advocate for our guests,” said Mark Berlin, Midway’s operations director for the last 16 years. “Mac understood that Midway had to be more than just a clubhouse for retired Navy, and he intuitively understood that we needed to connect with a broad audience. He was the right leader in the right place at the right time.”

As Midway’s president and CEO, Mac also represented the museum in the community for nearly two decades. From the Port of San Diego and the County Board of Supervisors to the local chapters of the American Red Cross and Armed Forces YMCA, he made certain that Midway was not only a participant, but a strong supporter.

Mac with Lori Cartmill.
Mac with Gabby Giffords and Mark Kelly.

“He is an outstanding community leader and well respected by many people,” said Sharon Cloward, president of the San Diego Working Waterfront and Association of the Port Tenants. “He knew he had his work cut out for him to ensure the Midway was something the community would be proud of, and he has certainly delivered on his promise. I love how he worked in collaboration with the community.”

Above all, Mac put a high priority of making work life as enjoyable as possible for the staff and volunteers. With a natural and easy-going personality, self-effacing demeanor and a keen sense of humor, he took great pleasure in engaging with everyone on the ship and giving them the credit they deserved.

“Mac’s policy of having fun, while building this ship into America’s Living Symbol of Freedom, has made Midway what it is today,” said Lori Cartmill, the museum’s senior executive assistant who has worked closely with Mac for nearly 15 years. “He has a way to capture everyone with his wonderful sense of humor. He always speaks from his heart.”

Mac with Tarzan the red kangaroo.
Mac with First Lady Laura Bush receiving the Preserve America Presidential Award.

In less than two decades, Midway, under Mac’s leadership, has risen like a Phoenix from the ashes of a dilapidated old Navy ship to become one of the most admired and respected museums, of any kind, in the world.

“Mac came to San Diego on a wing and a prayer that this carrier thing might be a success, and somehow, he mustered the courage to do it,” said John Hawkins, a founding member of the museum’s organizing committee and past board chair. “The heart and soul and the character and wisdom of its success is Mac McLaughlin. San Diego and the nation owes him a huge debt of gratitude.”

As Mac retires to the rolling hills of South Carolina, the entire crew of Midway gratefully wishes him Fair Winds & Following Seas.

Voices from the Flight Deck

Reflections from Midway board members, staff and volunteers who have worked with Mac for many years.

“I had the good fortune to work with Mac directly. Mac’s vision, dedication and leadership have been the primary reason that Midway has been successful and has become one of the leading attractions in San Diego and the entire nation. I’m pleased to be his associate and friend.”

– Vince Benstead, museum board member and former board chair

“Mac’s dedication and personality have been the best assets for Midway. Mac will always remain part of the essence of the museum and of course, the Midway Magic.”

– Angie Ginn, an 18-year docent with more than 33,000 volunteer hours

“Mac is very caring and humble leader. He is probably the best boss I’ve had. He is the Midway.”

– Jim Nash, who joined Midway in 2004 and retired as the docent director in 2019

“It’s been a real pleasure to work with Mac. He is a great leader and a real gentleman. Mac is Midway. He built it and it is in his blood.”

– Ronne Froman-Blue, who was a member of the original museum board and former board chair

“The thing I appreciated the most about Mac was that his vision for the museum never varied from the day he was hired until he retired.”

– Rudy Shappee, docent and assistant director of the Midway Institute for Teacher who started volunteering for the museum’s organizing committee in 2001

“Mac has been the ultimate ambassador for the ship and those who work here. He truly values the volunteers and the genuine reflection of the museum mission that they bring and represent. He has a smile for everyone, and I think his expressions of gratitude go a long way.”

– Laurie Switzer, Midway’s director of volunteers for 18 years

“Mac carried out a challenging task in transitioning us from a raw ship, into a functioning public attraction, and then building it up into a cherished community asset. He has been the most decisive individual I have ever met. He is innovative, and often has the simplest and most practical answer to most any question.”

– Karl Zingheim, Midway’s historian since 2004

“Mac’s personality and unique leadership was vital to the success of Midway. His open-door policy, approachability, and transparency created a culture of inclusion and equality amongst the staff and volunteers. We all felt heard, opinions and thoughts valued and respected. An open forum that created camaraderie and memories to last a lifetime.”

– Vanessa Pineda, assistant marketing director who has been with Midway for nearly 16 years.

“I think Midway would not have been nearly as successful if not for Mac. He was the right guy at the right time.”

– Frank Hudson, assistant docent director who started with Midway in 2004

“Mac brought a happy light to the ship. He injected Midway with enthusiastic laughter and joy that was tangible – the real deal. Working for Mac brought me a boatload of pride because he always made people feel special.”

– Jill Hammons, former Midway membership director who worked with Mac for nearly 14 years

“He has been absolutely crucial to the museum’s success. He had a central vision and understanding that the museum must be, above all things, authentic.”

– Margaret Riggs, director of the Midway Sailor program who joined the museum as a volunteer in 2004

“He is funny, irreverent, hard-working, has an amazing knack to work with all levels of people and make it look easy. His investment in Midway is to wear his heart on his sleeve for her. He loves his volunteers and always has high praise for them in keeping this great grey lady running.”

– Karen Garst, Midway’s membership coordinator & veteran liaison since 2009

I have always started my Currents column with a greeting from the flight deck of Midway, but alas, it is time for me to bid adieu and go ashore for good to begin the next chapter of my life as a retired guy. 

This is truly a bittersweet time for me as I am truly looking forward to my retired golden years, but I am also sad to be leaving the best job I’ve ever had. What has been done here in San Diego with Midway is truly magical, and it has been the honor of my life to have been at the helm for the journey.

When Midway arrived in San Diego Bay in January 2004, the dreams were in place but the realities were daunting. The ship only had four restored military aircraft on board and not much else. We had no electricity, no running water, no bathrooms, no exhibits, no staff and, oh yes, no money. 

The folks that fought so hard to bring the ship here, overcame significant obstacles along the way and had high hopes and the dream of what Midway could become. What has happened since would not have been possible in any other city in America, and I can say that with authority because I’ve seen the other ships. Only Midway has been able to develop into the successful and sustainable operation that we all enjoy today. This city and the volunteers from San Diego made that happen. San Diegans are great dreamers, and they have worked very hard to transform Midway into a museum and idea that our city is very proud of.

“What has been done here in San Diego with Midway is truly magical, and it has been the honor of my life to have been at the helm for the journey.”

Today, we are the most visited historic naval ship in the world, able to sustain our operation and invest in our long-term future. We formed the Midway Foundation to share our success with other military, veteran and first-responder non-profit organizations. We have become uniquely positioned as a not-for-profit museum that shares our resources with other organizations that support our mission focus. 

We continue to be the #1 thing to do in San Diego according to Tripadvisor, and we have helped transform the Embarcadero into the most visited pedestrian area along the bayfront, a far cry from what it was before Midway arrived. 

We are finalizing plans to build the largest veterans park on the West Coast next to Midway on Navy Pier, and we are positioned to become an iconic landmark that future generations of Americans will come to enjoy during their San Diego visit. You should all be proud of these accomplishments because if you are reading this article, you are part of the network of San Diego leaders that made the dream come true. 

Thank you for allowing me to be a part of this historic effort and know that I will look forward to Midway’s future for the rest of my life. Now, go build that park and continue to build upon Midway’s legacy. 

 My sincere thanks and admiration go out to all of our staff, volunteers, board of directors and the many San Diegans who have built the Midway dream.

Onward and upward,

It is a bittersweet time to be aboard the USS Midway Museum. We closed out an incredible year for 2022 that included a welcomed increase in attendance, seeing school programs back up and running, and major progress on the development of the Freedom Park project. 

However, even with rebounding from the crushing impact of the pandemic and an exciting future that lies ahead for the museum and the Midway Foundation, it’s still hard to conceal the cloud that lingers – Mac McLaughlin’s retirement.

There’s not much more I can add to the well-deserved accolades and wonderful stories of leadership that you’ve already heard from Midway staff, our volunteers and board members. That said, I will share I truly will miss Mac. His humor and kindness will not be forgotten, nor his willingness to support his team. I am grateful to have been under his leadership for nearly two years.

He is leaving behind an incredible legacy and exciting next chapter for the museum, Foundation, and the future Freedom Park at Navy Pier. I am honored to be part of a team that will carry his legacy forward, along with new leadership. 

Mac, thank you for more than 50 years of service to your country, both in and out of uniform. Fair winds and following seas, admiral.

I hope you all had a joyous  holiday season with your friends and loved ones, and that this new year brings a renewed energy and excitement for the future. 

As we inch towards our museum’s 20th anniversary next year, we continue to be busier than ever. I was recently reading an article about the phrase “never a dull moment” and learned its origin is credited to the British Royal Navy in the 1930s. It was no surprise to me that a naval service would be responsible for a phrase that is so true of life on board Midway today. 

In this issue you will read about some of the incredible preservation and restoration projects, as well as enhancements programs that keep our crew busy. Midway is also always alive with new guests visiting from around the world, new members joining our family, and Midway veteran’s returning to once again see their former home. Each new day continues to be a wonderful adventure thanks to the people, programs and memories that fill our nearly 80-year-old aircraft carrier, and I believe the best is yet to come.

This month, we are thrilled to put a spotlight on you, our members, during Member Appreciation Week. While occasions like this are a great opportunity to thank you, we hope you know that we have gratitude for you every day. Your support and love for Midway continues to inspire us and move us towards a bright future. Whether you are attending a member event, bringing your out-of-town guests for a tour, or simply calling us to say hello, we appreciate the value all of you bring to our Midway family. 

Cheers to a memorable year ahead and best wishes to you all!

All the Best,

For USS Midway Museum educators, it’s often difficult to quantify the long-term impact we have on youth. We hope that we are inspiring and making a difference, but rarely are we able to validate our efforts. 

When you hear, however, that someone’s visit to Midway set them on a path of service to their nation, we get excited. When they then return to the museum years later to share their passion with future generations, you know that all your hard work is paying off.

For our education department, the enduring impact of our efforts came full circle when we met Michael Miser. Michael attended a volunteer open house in 2022 and interviewed for our Overnight Youth Program. He was polite, well-spoken, and confident. We were impressed.

He also had personal experience as an active-duty sailor serving on an aircraft carrier which made him an even better fit for our overnight team. He told us that he had visited the museum before and now wanted to share his own knowledge with guests. He also thought that by volunteering on Midway, he could improve his public speaking and communication skills.

It was awesome to hear that someone who had visited our museum was inspired to join our team and share their own story of service.  We had made a difference in this young man’s life.

 It wasn’t until late last year that, as Paul Harvey used to say, we got the “rest of the story.” 

Michael Miser at the helm on the Bridge during a visit to Midway when he was 6 years old.
Michael Miser at the helm on the Bridge today as a Midway volunteer at age 25.

Michael, who just turned 25, had invited his family and some friends to attend one of our scheduled overnight programs. Coincidentally, our new education director, Tina Chin, and her family we’re also on board that same night to experience our program. That evening Michael’s sister Jennifer showed Tina a picture of Michael standing at the helm on Midway’s Navigation Bridge when he was only 6-year-old. That is where it all started.

“Watching him talk to guests about Midway’s history as well as his own experiences, it’s easy to
see that he has a passion and energy to inspire the next generation.”

During Michael’s first visit to Midway, he was awestruck by the ship, its airplanes and all the systems on board. He listened to the docents talk about flight operations, the different crewmember jobs, and how everyone had to work as a team. Even at a very early age, that visit changed Michael’s life and he walked away with three goals – he would join the Navy, serve on an aircraft carrier, and be stationed in San Diego.

More than a dozen years later, Michael is now a Navy electrician’s mate second class, is assigned to the aircraft carrier USS Carl Vinson (CV-70), and is homeported in San Diego at Naval Base Coronado across the bay from Midway.

He had finally achieved all three of his goals, and is now the electronics’ leading petty officer in the Vinson’s aviation fuels division.

Realizing that his Navy service had instilled confidence and made him a leader and mentor Michael wanted to give back. Shortly after returning from his second deployment in 2022, he signed up to volunteer with our education team. Watching him talk to guests about Midway’s history as well as his own experiences, it’s easy to see that he has a passion and energy to inspire the next generation.

Our hope is that years from now, some youngster inspired by Michael today on Midway will return to continue the legacy.

They called it the Ensign Eliminator.

There were many who said the aircraft was unstable, underpowered, had bad visibility and its engines flamed out when it rained.

For the F7U Cutlass, one of the Navy’s first jet-powered aircraft, rumors and mistruths started by those who never flew the aircraft unfortunately became its reality, and created a less-than-stellar reputation that followed the fighter-bomber during its short stint in the fleet.

“The F7U aircraft has been saddled with an almost Edsel-like reputation that careful analysis and dedicated research proves to be anything but true, said Al Casby, an F7U expert who owns Cutlass Aeronautics in Mesa, Ariz. “If anything, the aircraft was well built, met its design specifications, and provided the Navy what it asked for at the time.”

Regardless of the lingering and misrepresented myths that have dogged Cutlass over the last 70 years ago, there was total agreement that it was one of most exotic and futuristic-looking aircraft designed and built at the start of the jet-fighter age.

A fully restored version of this spectacular Cold War-era aircraft, built by the Chance Vought Aircraft company in 1953, is now on exhibit on the USS Midway Museum’s flight deck.

The restored F7U Cutlass is hoisted onto Midway’s flight deck.

“It is very exciting to have completed this restoration effort,” said Walt Loftus, Midway’s air wing director. “This is a very unique aircraft and it’s a great addition to Midway.”

The restoration route for Midway’s newest aircraft exhibit was long, circuitous and involved tens of thousands of volunteer hours.

“It was originally slated for the USS Hornet Museum, but the museum was unable to get the restoration started,” said Walt, “It came to us in 2007. It was received in very poor condition along with another Cutlass that we used for parts.”

Three years later, the aircraft, which was actually flown by Wally Schirra, one of the original Mercury 7 astronauts, was sent to the Vought Aircraft Heritage Foundation’s retiree group in Dallas for additional restoration support. The Texas-based retiree group, many of them in their 90s, rebuilt the fuselage, cockpit and landing gear.

“The Vought retirees worked on the aircraft a total of five years,” said Walt. “Their team was about 15 people and they normally worked six hours a day three days a week. Being able to work with the Vought retiree group on this project was great. They dedicated more than 56,000 man-hours to the restoration.”

In June 2018, the Cutlass, which accumulated only 273 flight hours while in the fleet, was shipped back to San Diego for Midway’s air wing team to finish the job. Over the course of the next four years, Midway’s restoration team completed the structural repair on the fuselage, wings and outer wing panels. Roughly 80 percent of the aircraft required some form of refurbishment ranging from minor repairs and major restoration to completely replacing and remanufacturing aircraft components.

Former Cutlass pilot, Dick Cavicke, with an F7U he flew in 1954 (l), was on board Midway when the restored Cutlass arrived on the ship in December 2022.

“The wing and outer wing panel skins were a challenge,” said Walt. “The originals were a sheet of plywood with a thin sheet of aluminum on either side. We had to use fillers and a thicker piece of aluminum. The manufacturing process used to originally build the wings is no longer available.”

Four years, and more than 20,000 volunteer hours later, Midway’s air wing finished the restoration project with a glistening coat of silver paint to help the Cutlass resemble its former self when she flew with Attack Squadron 212 (VA-212) on the USS Bon Homme Richard (CVA-31) in 1956.

Just before Christmas, the aircraft was finally moved from its long-time home at Hangar 805, Midway’s primary aircraft restoration facility at Naval Base Coronado, to Midway’s flight deck. On hand for the F7U’s arrival was Dick Cavicke, a 91-year-old retired Navy Captain who logged more than 400 flight hours in the Cutlass along with 26 carrier landings.

“I’m very pleased that it’s here on Midway,” said Dick, who flew F7U’s with Fighter Squadron 124 (VF-124), the first west coast Cutlass squadron starting in 1954 and deployed the following year on the USS Hancock (CV-19). “There aren’t many F7Us on display, so there a very few Cutlasses available for the public to see and to learn about.”

Midway’s restored Cutlass is only the second to go on public exhibit, with the first F7U being at the National Museum of Naval Aviation in Pensacola, Fla. Seeing the aircraft on the museum’s flight deck brought back a flood of memories of being one of the Navy’s first Cutlass pilots.

“Flying the Cutlass was very dramatic,” said Dick, who was the assistant operations officer on the staff of Carrier Division 1 (CARDIV 1) deployed on the USS Midway in the early 1970s. “It was quite exciting because it was a dramatic looking airplane and it flew very well. I’m very happy the Midway now has one to help the public understand what it was and admire it as I still do.”

“The volunteers here were very eager to work on the F7U and accomplished an outstanding job of taking parts from three different aircraft and fitting everything together,” said Royce Moke, Midway’s aircraft restoration project manager who oversaw the refurbishment of the Cutlass. “I am very proud of the volunteers for the outstanding work they do restoring the aircraft that go on display on Midway.”

F7U Cutlass
Amazing and cutting‑edge “firsts”

  • 1st tail-less U.S. fighter
  • 1st U.S. Navy swept-wing fighter
  • 1st aircraft to incorporate afterburner
  • 1st U.S. Navy supersonic production fighter
  • 1st aircraft to release bombs while in supersonic flight
  • 1st Vought aircraft with fully-pressurized and air-conditioned cockpit
  • One of the 1st U.S. Navy tactical aircraft capable of delivering a nuclear weapon 

Becoming a naturalized citizen of the United States is hard, and intentionally so.

Those wishing to become citizens must meet a stringent criteria established by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), and more importantly show that they are committed to the values and principles that are unique to Americans.

Beyond the age and residency requirements, the seemingly endless amount of forms that need to be filled out and the criminal background checks that have to be endured, citizen candidates must demonstrate a proficiency in English and pass a challenging exam that tests their knowledge of U.S. history, civics and government.

For many hoping to become naturalized citizens, help is often needed when studying to pass the test. This is where a corps of dedicated USS Midway Museum volunteers comes to the rescue.

“In 2015, my wife and I saw an article in the newspaper calling for volunteers to assist in the San Diego Continuing Education’s Citizenship Program,” said Rudy Shappee, the assistant director of the Midway Institute for Teacher. “We both thought it would be a perfect fit for the Midway.”

Midway volunteer Cheryl Brierton (l) tutored María de La Paz Plascencia Davis, helping her pass her U.S. citizenship exam.

Reaching out to San Diego Community College District, which oversees the continuing education programs, Rudy laid out a proposal to marry the city’s existing volunteer tutors with Midway volunteer program to enhance the effort already in place to assist immigrants to the United States as they worked to learn English and prepare for their citizenship test and interviews.

“I have been so fortunate to work with the Midway citizenship tutors,” said Mechelle Perrott, citizenship volunteer coordinator for the San Diego College of Continuing Education. “The volunteers share their knowledge and expertise on subject matter relevant to the course. They are great role models on civic participation.”

Midway volunteers are trained and placed in classrooms to tutor individually or in small groups. During the course, they help students improve their English language skills and knowledge of American history and government. They assist them as necessary with completing their citizenship application as well as with preparations for the citizenship exam and interview.

“The way I see it, helping potential citizens prepare for their interviews with USCIS is a natural fit for anyone who enjoys helping others and who feels proud to be an American,” said Louise Shappee, who has been a volunteer tutor since the inception of Midway’s collaboration in 2015. “Working with these immigrants has made me appreciate my country even more than I had before.”

Students taking the citizenship course, either online or in person, come from all over the world. Many of them dream of becoming U.S. citizen long before they arrive in the United States. The four-month class helps them to better take on the challenges of the citizenship process.

“Every would-be U.S. citizen must pass an extensive three-part test that many those born in America could not,” said Cheryl Brierton, who has logged more than 1,000 volunteer hours in support of the museum’s citizenship tutor program. “I am so thrilled when I can help strengthen our country by its acceptance of applicants who pass this test, and thus become informed voters and contributors to a healthy society.”

Cheryl, whose own grandparents escaped the horrors of World War II fleeing their homes in Eastern Europe to become US citizens, most recently helped an immigrant from Guadalajara, Mexico prepare for and pass her citizenship exam.

“Cheryl was very nice and acted like a real immigration officer that made the real interview easier,” said María de La Paz Plascencia Davis, who received her citizenship in November 2022. “She helped me practice the interview outside of the normal class time and explained all parts of the interview in great detail. It really helped a lot. She is an amazing person and I’m so happy to have her help me.”

Currently, 15 Midway volunteer citizenship tutors working with little fanfare or notoriety, yet provide assistance that is invaluable to those they helped become citizens.

“Midway volunteers bring an authentic voice in the delivery of the Midway mission,” said Laurie Switzer, Midway’s director of volunteers. “Their endeavor in outreach on behalf of the museum is priceless.”

Many of the students have experienced and endured horrific persecution and oppression in their home countries as well as years of living in deplorable refugee camps prior to arriving in the United States. Gaining their citizenship is more than a dream come true, it’s the start of a new life in a free and democratic society. An opportunity for which they are profoundly grateful.

“Almost to a one, they express deep appreciation for the assistance I am able to offer, said Louise, who spent several years working with school groups on Midway. “Perhaps the proudest moments are when students return after their interviews with the news that they have passed.”

“Midway’s citizenship tutors help our program flourish,” said Mechelle. “Thank you to these volunteers for helping so many individuals become Americans.”

The first American combat troops, 3,500 Marines from the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade based in Okinawa, Japan, arrived in South Vietnam in March 1965 to protect a U.S. air base in Da Nang. It was a start of a long and costly fight that saw more than 58,000 U.S. servicemembers killed and another 150,000 wounded over the next 10 years.

 It was the first war in which the United States ultimately failed to meet its objectives, and also the first time America failed to welcome its veterans back home as heroes.

This year, the country commemorates the 50th anniversary of the official end of the Vietnam War. It’s estimated that of the 3 million American men and women who actually served in Vietnam, less than 1 million are still alive today.

Glen Sparrow served during the Vietnam War as a crewmember on the USS Goldsborough (DDG-20) from 1964-1965.

In an effort to preserve the histories of Vietnam veterans, the United States of America Vietnam War Commemoration office in Washington D.C. has spent the last several years conducting oral interviews around the country.

“One of the best ways to preserve their legacy is to record their experiences first hand,” said Mark Franklin, chief of the history and legacy branch of the commemoration office. “The viewer or listener will better appreciate the veterans’ service and sacrifice, and ensure their legacy endures for future generations.”

Mark and his commemoration team recently spent a week at the USS Midway Museum recording interviews with 20 museum volunteers who are also veterans of the Vietnam War.

“History is more properly retrieved if it includes the views, memories, explanations of those who experienced it, not just from the reports and writings of those who research, but did not experience, then relate the events,” said Glen Sparrow, a Midway docent with more than 6,000 volunteer hours who deployed to Vietnam on the guided-missile destroyer USS Goldsborough DDG-20 from 1964-1965 as the ship’s navigator.

“I think oral history helps round out the story of the past,” said Steve Cross, who deployed to Vietnam on the USS Frank Knox (DDR-742) in 1967 as the anti-submarine warfare officer and the naval gunfire officer. “A story, at times, can tell of an individual caught up in the forces of history. When veterans tell their story it helps future generations understand what changed and what stayed the same. Our veteran’s story is a portrait of who we are and what we remember.”

The commemoration office has interviewed hundreds of Vietnam veterans since the project began 10 years ago. Mark and his team are in the process of preparing them for the Library of Congress Veterans History Project.

“Written history is important for future generations, but, by its nature, unless it’s autobiographical, is distant and sanitized,” said Phil Eakin, the navigator on the USS Higbee (DD-806) in 1972 when it was bombed by a North Vietnamese MIG 17 while operating in the Gulf of Tonkin. “Oral history provides a record of somebody who was there. It is more personal and visceral. Oral history, even in transcribed form, is of more value to a researcher and more interesting to the casual consumer than a compiled record of events.”

“Oral history provides a record of somebody who was there. It is more personal and visceral. Oral history, even in transcribed form, is of more value to a researcher and more interesting to the casual consumer than a compiled record of events.”

The commemoration office was established in 2012 under the secretary of defense with the purpose of thanking and honoring Vietnam veterans and their families. Recording oral histories is just one of the programs aimed at commemorating the services and sacrifices of these veterans.

“Among the 845 interviews we have conducted since I began this project in 2013, the veterans that we interviewed on the USS Midway were some of the most articulate and insightful,” said Mark, whose Army career spanned 30 years. “The interviews were instructive, sometimes sad and difficult to hear, but in every case, genuine and authentic. It was an honor and a privilege to interview them.”

Steve Cross deployed to Vietnam on the USS Frank Knox (DDR-742) in 1967.

“The vast majority of our veterans are very proud of their service, regardless of how the public viewed the conflict,” said Mark, a retired U.S. Army colonel. “The most important lesson we can take from these oral histories is that we should never blame the warrior for the war.”

For Midway volunteers, the interviews were the opportunity to not only chronicle their own experiences during their time in Vietnam, but to add to the war’s overall narrative and better inform those who have never served in the uniform of the nation.

“Most people in this country have little or no experience with military service,” said Steve, who has logged more than 7,300 volunteer hours as a Midway docent. “A few photos of distressed veterans paint an unfair picture of the millions of Vietnam veterans who are quietly successful and major contributors in their community. Telling our stories helps refocus nonveterans on the overwhelming success of our military citizens.”

“While recollections, some 50-years removed from the actual events, are subject to memory loss or modification, they can also provide ground truth,” said Phil, one of Midway’s senior volunteer librarians who has dedicated more than 20,000 hours of his time to the museum. “That is why it is important to collect oral histories from veterans.”

Once the interviews are finalized for the Library of Congress, they will remain in perpetuity for current and future generations of historians, researchers and students of history.

An A-6 Intruder from Attack Squadron 115 (VA-115) was returning to the USS Midway from a night low-level bombing mission over North Vietnam in late October 1972. The approach was normal with standard corrections made for being slightly high on the glide slope. 

As the Intruder contacted the flight deck, the axle of the plane’s starboard landing gear sheared off becoming a missile flying along the deck while the now damaged A-6 hurled forward crashing into a number of parked aircraft near the carrier’s bow. The carnage was horrific – four dead, including the Intruder’s bomber/navigator, and dozens more seriously injured.

Wounded flight-deck crewmembers, several with significant trauma injuries, were immediately brought to a makeshift triage area set up on the mess deck near Midway’s sick bay. Coordinating the life-saving mass-casualty event was Midway’s senior medical officer and flight surgeon, Lt. Cmdr. Don Vance.

“It was kind of surreal,” recalled Don, who was prioritizing those he felt needed surgery. “There were lots of leg injuries. The crew were brought below deck in the weapon’s elevator. We worked to get their bleeding stopped. Fortunately, we had practiced this, and everybody knew what they needed to do and they did their jobs.”

Don had been commissioned several years earlier as an Ensign in the Naval Reserves just prior to starting medical school in 1966. He had joined the Navy at the insistence of his brother, Benjamin, who had been stationed on Midway in the late 1950s as an electronics’ technician. His father-in-law, Keith Henderson, was also a former Midway sailor serving previously as a gunner’s mate on the carrier.

In 1969, as a third-year medical student at the University of Arkansas, Don was put on active duty and promoted to lieutenant. After receiving his Doctor of Medicine degree the following year, he conducted follow-on medical training at the Naval Aerospace Medical Institute in Pensacola, Fla. and was designated a Navy flight surgeon in March 1972. It wasn’t long before he was bound for Midway.

Midway’s commanding officer at the time, Capt. Bill Harris, was not thrilled with having a Navy lieutenant and recently blessed flight surgeon as his new senior medical officer.

Don returned to the Midway as a volunteer in 2022.

“It was not appreciated by the CO and he initially delegated the ship’s surgeon to be senior medical officer although he was not a flight surgeon,” recalled Don.

It was until later in 1972, following Midway’s change of command while on Dixie Station off the coast of Vietnam that summer, that Don was promoted to lieutenant commander and assumed the senior medical officer position.

“Eventually, after several months and a change of command I was promoted and finished my tour on the longest cruise in Midway’s history and the next to last carrier deployments of the Vietnam War,” said Don, a Kansas native.

Instead of returning with Midway to its new homeport of Yokosuka, Japan, Don decided to join the crew of the USS Constellation (CV-64) as it was just starting its combat deployment to Vietnam. During his back-to-back war cruises, Don also supported a military medical clinic in South Vietnam.

“I arranged to fly into Da Nang several times to assist a small Navy medical unit there that did not have a physician at that time,” said Don.

Having earned his private pilot license as a sophomore in medical school, Don ensured flying was more than just something in the written part of his flight surgeon job description.

“I enjoyed being allowed to fly with the A-6 squadrons during air-to-air refueling operations as well as with the A-3D crews on several electronic countermeasures missions,” said Don, who would later receive an Air Force Air Medal for his participation in an at-sea emergency helicopter rescue in 1974.

Following his Vietnam tours, Don continued his military medical career both on active duty and in the naval reserves for the next 30 years at multiple Navy hospitals and with several aviation squadrons, eventually retiring as a captain in 2003.

Don also had a full and diverse civilian medical career with his own family practice and as an emergency room physician with Scripps Hospital and a senior medical examiner with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Fifty years after his initial tour on Midway, Don returned to where he first cut his teeth as a flight surgeon in the fleet when he became volunteer on the USS Midway Museum.

“I have always wanted to volunteer,” said Don, who even visited the ship soon after its arrival in San Diego to become a museum. “Unfortunately, due to my work, I didn’t have the time to volunteer until I was more retired.”

Although he has only recently started volunteering for museum’s safety department, Don is thrilled to once again be part of Midway’s crew.

“It’s hard to explain fully, but I’m so proud of the Midway,” said Don, who already has more than 50 volunteer hours under his belt. “They did such a great job turning it into a museum. She’s an incredible ship and it’s good to be back on board.”

When you’re sick, you call a doctor. When your car breaks down, you call a mechanic. When your drain is clogged, you call a plumber.

When your 32-foot-long rudders and 18-foot-in-diameter propellers get stuck in the muck on the floor of San Diego Bay, you call a . . . well . . . who do you call?

For the last 19 years, the USS Midway Museum has been berthed at Navy Pier with the ship’s stern immediately adjacent to the bay’s shallow shoreline. Although the carrier weighs nearly 70,000 tons, it still floats freely – 99 percent of the time. When the low tide approaches a negative one to two feet, however, Midway’s massive rudders and colossal propellers make contact with the bay’s muddy bottom.

“Over time, tidal effects have increased the buildup of silt under Midway’s stern,” said Len Santiago, Midway’s chief engineer. “We began experiencing abnormal stress on the rudders and propeller blades, which no ship is designed to accept. Although Midway is all steel and built to absorb a lot of damage in war, the ship was not constructed to receive up to one million pounds of pressure pushing upward on the aft portion of the ship.”

Crews prepare to remove a section of the starboard rudder.

These occasional, but recurring, upward forces were causing undue strain on the propeller shafts and high vibrations on vertical support bulkheads and the fantail. The ship is not able to withstand these periodic dynamic tensions over extended periods of time.

Options were not only limited, but complicated. An extensive dredging operation could be undertaken to remove silt from below the ship, but it would only be a short-term solution. The other option was to literally remove Midway’s rudder and propellers, which would decrease the amount of propulsion and steering components extending below the water line as well as reduce the weight of the ship.

“After an in-depth analysis by naval architectural engineers, who conducted vibration analysis and hydrographic scanning of the bottom of the ship, it was decided the best options was to remove the rudders and propellers,” said Len, whose engineering team is responsible for the ship’s preservation.

An operation this extensive and complex on a ship as immense as an aircraft carrier would normally be accomplished in a gigantic dry dock. Unfortunately, that was not a possibility for Midway.

The search began for a maritime repair and maintenance company that could handle a rudder and propeller modification project on a scale rarely seen. Phoenix International answered the call.

Phoenix is a globally renowned and highly-respected ship engineering and repair company that provides a broad range of underwater services including maintenance, welding, construction, inspections and testing. But Midway’s project requirements were a bit out of the ordinary.

“Phoenix was privileged to help plan and execute this complex pierside operation,” said Travis Niederhauser, the Hawaii area manager for Phoenix. “The single biggest challenge of this project was planning cuts around very short tide windows while the stern of the vessel was afloat.”

After further review by the Phoenix’s diving engineers, it was determined only the lower portion of the rudders and several of propeller blades needed to be removed.

“Since there was limited water depth, traditional rudder and propeller removal procedures could not be utilized,” said Travis, who has been with Phoenix for nine years. “Our engineering and operations team had to develop a comprehensive rigging and cutting plan.”

A portion of a propeller blade lays on aircraft elevator 2.

Phoenix, along with its project partners, Bluegrass Company and Pacific Maritime Group, had three major issues that needed to be solved. The first, and most critical, was ensuring the safety of their divers during cutting operations. The teams also needed to ensure they had enough time to complete a cut before the ship settled into the silt during low tide, and to then have sufficient clearance between the hull and the bottom of the bay to actually recover the portions of the rudders and propeller blades once they finished a cut.

Using custom built diamond-wire rail saws, designed by Bluegrass, seven and a half feet of each of the two rudders were removed as well as seven of the 14 propeller blades. Because of the operational intricacies, nearly three months was needed to complete the project.

“With this rudder-propendectomy, we ultimately reduced the weight at the back of the ship by nearly 32 tons,” said Len, who has a master’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Naval Postgraduate School. “Midway now sits about a foot higher in the water.”

Because of the in-depth preparation, Phoenix was able to complete the project with only minor modifications to the plan.

“Our divers employed a variety of tools and techniques,” said Travis, who earned a bachelor’s degree in geotechnology from the University of Hawaii. “Very rarely do we get to implement this many underwater techniques on one project. Completing a project is always a great feeling, however, success on a project of this complexity was not possible without the right team.”

“These guys were the ultimate professionals,” said Len, relieved that the pressure on the 77-year-old ship’s hull has been finally erased. “Their hearts, hands and expertise were dedicated to Midway’s preservation.”