USS Midway: Naval History on the San Diego Waterfront

On the San Diego Waterfront is an impressively gigantic aircraft carrier, lit up at night, that hosts a world of history as one of the longest-running aircraft carriers, the USS Midway.  Named after the famous World War II Battle of Midway, the ship was commissioned two days after the end of the war but still saw action in Korea, Vietnam, and the Gulf War before being retired.  Now it serves a new mission, as a naval history museum in the harbor of one of the most beautiful cities on the California Coast; a city with a rich naval history itself. 

Large air craft carrier at port
A floating city docked in the San Diego Harbor for us to explore*

When planning the trip to San Diego, I asked each child to research the city and pick one place they wanted to make sure we saw.  My son surprised me by saying he wanted to see the USS Midway.  I grew up with a father who was in the Navy and loves history.  That meant that growing up we saw every ship, every naval yard, and every historical battle site up and down the east coast.  I talked of these adventures as a kid with my kids, but I did not really realize how intently they were listening.  My son caught on to the fact that there was a large ship in San Diego, one just like his grandfather was stationed at and clung to that.  He told me he thought it would be fun to see it was like when his Grandpa was in the Navy.  How could I say no to that? 

Mother and son hugging looking at a video display
So proud that this is what my son picked*

Due to the COVID restrictions at the time, to go to the USS Midway you needed to purchase timed entry tickets to control the crowds.  We managed to get the earliest tickets possible, 10 am.  Once you enter and go past temperature check, you cross the gangplank into the ship, and get to the audio tour center.  Here you are given a sanitized audio listening device.  All over the ship were signs with a yellow square and/or a green square.  If you held the listening device up to the square, it started to give you information about what you were looking it.  You could hold it close, but not all the way up to your ear to listen to it.  The Yellow square was the longer, more in-depth “adult” explanation.  The green squares were the fun, shorter kid-friendly explanation.  This was great because it allowed my husband and me to indulge in in-depth knowledge and sometimes tear-jerking stories.  My daughter loved that they had kid ones just for her and went looking for all the green squares.  My son, a growing tween, found he would switch between the yellow and green choices, kind of depending on how much he wanted to learn about a particular exhibit. 

Young girl holding a audio device to her ear, a jet bomber with a sign in front
Everyone loved the audio tour, it was easy to use, and my daughter loved the specific ones for kids

You enter the USS Midway in the hanger deck, where you find all the aircraft that were stored when not in use.  Here it was massive, about the size of several football fields, and had many planes from the different eras that the USS Midway was in commission.  There was an insightful exhibit on the battle of the USS Midway, a cool plane that had a penny from the year it was made that you had to find near the propeller, and a helicopter from Operation Frequent Wind, which at the end of the Vietnam War facilitated the evacuation of US and Vietnamese refugees who were fleeing Saigon in its final days.  One of those refugees told her memories of that day in a powerful story in the audio tour.  Be sure to listen to that one. 

The hanger deck of an air craft carrier with an example of 3 world war II style planes on display
The Hanger Deck was impressive, with many older airplanes on display*
A small helicopter displayed in the hanger deck
This helicopter held two adults and 5 children escaping Saigon at the fall of the Vietnam War in Operation Frequent Wind

Off the Hanger Deck we got to walk through the decks where the enlisted sailors and the officers lived and work.  Set up in a one-way fashion to encourage social distancing, you got to see the Command Information Center, Officers quarters, and the squad ready rooms, where the men sat when receiving orders (or socializing on their time off). 

The large chain used for the anchor of an air craft carrier, two young children looking at the command center of a ship, a woman holding her arm up to a thick rope, the size of her arm.
Lots of fascinating parts of ship below deck were on display*

As we passed each officer’s room the kids went “wow, grandpa slept there!” and I kept saying, no, that was for officers.  Finally at the end we got to the enlisted men’s bunks.  Stacked 3 high, and with some space underneath and a locker, this is where I finally got to say, “Grandpa slept here!”.  They said, “He got this all to himself?” 🤦‍♀️ I had to laugh.  They could not believe hundreds of men shared the same space and had such little room for their stuff.  My daughter was not sure how she had fit her wardrobe in that space.  She did not like the answer that they wore uniforms.  I do not see the military in her future 😂.

6 small bunks form a ship, and 6 lockers for the enlisted men
Pretty small quarters for the enlisted men

At the other end of the Hanger Deck, there was access to the bellow decks Galley and Sick Bay.  This was great, again one way (to encourage social distancing) we learned from the mostly kid focused audio tour that the ship had to prepare 13,000 meals a day!  My daughter was also fascinated by the fact that every sailor had to take a turn in galley duty, and they were issued a standard issue puke bucket since that was the place you most often get seasick 🤢.  I personally, was impressed with the size of the stand mixer, and wondered if I could get that in my house for making Christmas cookies. 

A sign that shows how much food the fleet prepared for the men in a day.
That is a lot of food…

The real crown jewel of the USS Midway is the flight deck and the planes on display.  There are many different types of aircraft, from all different eras of the life of the USS Midway.  There were some fighter bombers with a sleek nose and body.  There was a helicopter that helped recover the astronauts from the Apollo missions, including Apollo 13.  There were the planes that flew into the field of battle during the Vietnam War to deliver mail to the soldiers to keep their spirits high.  There are honestly too many planes to see and listen to all the exhibits.  But it is a beautiful display, and worth spending a lot of time wandering the deck.  

Examples of planes on the flight deck of an aircraft carrier
The flight deck had a great variety of aircraft to view, with some amazing historical significance*

A few tips in the age of COVID travel:

  • All tickets are timed entry.  There is no required exit time, but you can not enter until your tickets time.  I recommend going early to ensure you have enough time to see all you want and avoid any time when it might get crowded with dawdlers and new people arriving. 
  • Before entering, there is a temperature check station, and some questions you must answer about your health before entering. 
Young girl getting her temperature checked before entry
You undergo a health screening before entering
  • Masks are required and must always stay on. You could sit at a bench and eat a quick snack or take a sip of water, but otherwise the mask had to be on. 
A sign saying "Masks have always been required to land on our flight deck"
My favorite mask sign in the ship*
  • The Hanger Deck and Flight Deck are wide with plenty of space to roam, and lots of fresh air.  However, below decks can get quite crowded.  There are markers on the ground and please respect them to give everyone your space.  Also, it is one way, so once you enter, you must continue until the end.  Keep that in mind. 
  • The café was under construction at the time of publication.  There are vending machines with water and cold drinks on the flight deck and near the gift shop. 
  • The movie theater of the ship was shut down due to COVID at the time of the visit.
  • Make sure to turn your audio tour listening device in at the right spot so it can be disinfected before the next use. 
  • There are a lot of hand sanitizer available.  Be sure to use it after going below decks, and up rails as those contained high touch areas. 

After about 2 hours, the kids were getting tired, hungry, and a little over listening to all the audio tours.  The sun was starting to come out and the energy was getting zapped from them as we walked the long flight deck.  But before we left, we made sure to walk down and check out the gift shop before we left.  After all, we had a naval loving Grandpa who had a birthday coming up 😊.  With our heads full of interesting new facts and history, and our hands full of bags of goodies we just bought, we left the ship, ready for the next adventure in San Diego!

USS Midway - Naval History on the San Diego Waterfront

* Photos taken by Atma Photography

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