Jewish Sightseeing HomePage Jewish Sightseeing
  2005-02-18—USS Midway tour
Harrison Weblog

2005 blog


A bon homme good time
aboard the USS Midway
,  Feb. 18, 2005

memoir file

By Donald H. Harrison        

It was quite an advantage having cousin Harry Jacobson-Beyer, the once and former sea salt, and his wife Sherry, with me on a tour of the aircraft carrier Midway, now a museum ship located on San Diego’s waterfront, approximately, ahem, midway between the Maritime Museum and Seaport Village.

True, it has been nearly 40 years since Harry completed service in the U.S. Navy as an enlisted man, whose duty as a boson’s mate was interrupted by a mandatory 90-day stretch in the galley.  But without Harry having thereby acquired some culinary experience, would I, a landlubber, have known that if I were to eat a bagel at the Fantail Café, I’d be better off accompanying it with COD than with LOX?

In Navy parlance, LOX is liquid oxygen, which is explosive, while COD is Carry On-board Delivery, which was how mail arrived aboard the Midway—and, really, what better accompaniment to a bagel is there than a letter from home?  Now if only the Fantail Café would offer bagels instead of muffins and cakes, and perhaps install some computers so aircraft carrier veterans like Harry could sign in or look up former shipmates!

Harry had served on the Bon Homme Richard, number 31 on the chronological list of aircraft carriers, whereas Midway was number 41—meaning the vessel we were touring was newer and more improved than the “Bonnie Dick” as Harry and his shipmates salaciously called their old ship. 

Harry Jacobson-Beyer at  his Bonne Homme Richard bunk and aboard Midway's flight deck, 2005

When Sherry—Harry’s Louisville belle—and I walked into the enlisted men’s berthing area, located far forward on the hangar deck, we took one look at the metal bunk beds stacked three high and thought how cramped such quarters were. 

Not Harry. To his eyes, these quarters were luxurious compared to what he remembered aboard the Bon Homme Richard. Imagine, those lucky stiffs actually got  their own metal drawer built into the bed frame. Not only that, there was a locker within reaching distance of the bed for those softies. Harry’s rope bunk had no drawers, and his locker—which was smaller—had been positioned all the way across the room. If you are a reader—and Harry later in his life would have a distinguished career as a children’s librarian in Louisville—a drawer right beneath you, and a locker right next to you, have advantages.

The 900-foot long, World War II-vintage Midway completed nearly a half-century of service as the flagship for Operation Desert Storm in 1991.  Nearly two hundred thousand Navy personnel served on Midway, in 4,800- person increments.  This compared to the 3,200 close friends and companions Harry served with aboard the Bon Homme Richard.

As one of very few Jewish sailors aboard the Bon Homme Richard in the middle 1960s, Harry would be pushing it to say that all his shipmates were friends; he remembers some used to refer to him as “Jew boy” and “Yid” not maliciously but rather in “what they considered to be jest.”

Midway’s massive, 40,000-pound anchor chain was displayed in the forecastle or " fo’c’s’le" as true salts call it. Each anchor chain link weighed 130 pounds.  Here, the audio tape that comes with the tour recounted one of many anecdotes one hears while proceeding from station to station aboard the carrier. Midway sailors used to have a betting pool, down to the second, before arriving at any liberty port on what time the anchor would begin its clanging and ship-vibrating descent to the bottom of the harbor.  Whoever won the pool would win plenty of money to buy beer or other such necessities in port.

The fo’c’s’le on the Midway was where Sunday religious services were held – the ones on Saturday apparently not needing much more space than an enlisted man’s locker.  It also was where discipline was meted out at the captain’s mast—for the most part punishments for relatively minor infractions like the time that Harry, then a rebellious teenager, refused to ‘frap’ the mooring lines—that is tie them all together so that the three ropes leading from the ship to the capstan on the pier stayed together taut as a single rope. He told his shipboard superior to “go frap it yourself” or some similarly sounding words.  Not only was Harry compelled to frap the lines, he also got three months’ galley duty.

So, instead of doing the relatively glamorous things that some boson’s mates do—such as standing at the wheel of the ship and bringing its course around to a bearing called out by the officer of the deck—Harry found himself dishing out a delicacy his shipmates referred to as SOS.  “Stuff on a shingle” is one kind translation. According to the Midway audio tape, although sailors universally criticized S.O.S.—minced beef on toast—S.O.S. would be the first thing they’d ask for when they’d return to the ship as veterans.

Down a hatch to a deck just below a kitchen, perhaps with a keen sense for efficiency and time management, is Midway’s hospital and sick-call area.  I’m 5’11 and throughout the tour, I found myself hunching as I walked, so I was not at all surprised to learn that bruised heads were frequent mishaps aboard Midway.  Sailors were always knocking their noggins on something, a flight surgeon recalled on the tape.  Harry remembered having his wisdom teeth pulled while on the Bon Homme Richard, losing all that wisdom, one suspects, before his frapping caper.

Back up the hatch to the mess hall, and nearby we saw the post office, where in the days before internet, mail call could cause a long line to queue past the movie theatre and seemingly all the way back to the stern.  Machine shops were near the post office, the tape reminding us that when you’re out at sea, you can’t run into a hardware store. So machinists could make almost anything, including paper clips and parts for their own machines.  In 1975 HUEY helicopters shuttled terrified refugees from the grounds of the U.S. Embassy as Saigon was falling.  The problem was the HUEYS had no wheels, so how were they to be moved on the flight deck?  A machinist came up with a portable set of wheels to get the choppers out of the way until they were needed again.

Of course, the flight deck and the superstructure are the highlights of a visit to any carrier.  Midway has an assemblage of aircraft ranging from helicopters to modern jet fighters on its flight deck, each it seemed with its own special story.  Personally, my favorite was told on tape by retired Cmdr. Chuck Smiley about the time he was piloting his SH-3 Sea King helicopter before dawn waiting for a flash of light he was told would be in a westerly direction.

Sure enough, there it was, and a tiny little tail emerged from the spot of light and the 3-man Apollo 10 capsule streaked toward splashdown.  Three 83-1/2 foot diameter parachutes deployed and Smiley traced the descending shroud lines 210 feet to the module below.  It was like watching a 10-story building coming in for an ocean landing as the sun rose behind it, the damn-near-poetic Smiley said.

Another area of interest on the flight deck is a little extension platform with a net behind it, close to where the jet planes land. Here a landing signal officer stands holding an instrument nicknamed the pickle.  If a jet is coming in too low, or too high, to make a good landing, the officer will press a button on the pickle, and the pilot will receive an electronic order not to land, but to fly over.  The net behind him is where the landing officer jumps in case of a possible crash situation—you might say when protection from the pickle isn’t sufficiently kosher.

Harry stopped to listen to the taped stories about every aircraft—it had been nearly four decades since he had been on a carrier and, by damn, he was going to soak it all up before returning to his home in Kentucky.  Eventually, he, Sherry and I got into a line that took us up in the superstructure to the flight operations area, where a live guide—pointing and gesturing— described the scene as no audio tape could.

“The air boss sits there in the chair to the left; he is a naval aviator, usually a commander with thousands of flight hours and hundreds and hundreds of landings and takeoffs on a carrier,” said our guide, who didn’t introduce himself, but judging by his age and bearing, he was a former career Navy man.

“While both launching and recovering an aircraft is pretty tricky; he (the air boss) was really concerned about the landing or recovery of the aircraft.  So his chair sits there on the left (as you’re facing the window overlooking the flight deck), he has a clear view of the angled deck where the aircraft are landed. You can see an F4 that is over here on the trap on number two wire – and that is where most of the landings took place.”

Our guide continued: “Another person who was up here was the mini boss – the air boss’s assistant, he sat there in the chair on the right; he’s got a great view of the two catapults that are up forward. We have two catapults that can operate one at a time to shoot aircraft off the forward part of the ship, that is on the long straight part of the flight deck.”

Harry knew it, of course, but Sherry and I learned that the procedure for catapulting an aircraft from the deck of a carrier is a choreographed  and breathtaking ballet.  In quoting our unknown guide, I can’t help but render him a salute for the vividness of description, which I’ll share with you:

The night before the mission the pilots are briefed on what their targets are, air routes in and air routes out from the target area, and what kind of ordnance they are going to carry,” he said.

“The pilots always do a ‘weight and balance’—they know where the ordnance is located on the aircraft and just as important they have to know the total weight. Those figures the next morning are given to the catapult operators through the aircraft director. The aircraft director has an office on the flight deck. When the aircraft comes up, there are people in yellow jerseys who direct it… over the catapult like that A7 over here on our port cat—or the F4 on the starboard catapult. 

 “They pull down a T-bar that locks into the shuttle that actually launches the aircraft. They put in a small breakable bar of metal called the “hold-back” between the aircraft and the deck, so that when the pilot cranks his throttles up his aircraft doesn’t start to take off on its own. It would be a bad thing; it would only fall off the end.  

“Once that is done a guy comes out with a grease board marker and it’s got a number on there.  He has put the plane’s weight—according to the ‘weight and balance’ sheet—in grease pencil on the board, and he shows it to the pilot. That is because it is real noisy there, you can’t hear. Radios are pretty poor. The pilot looks at the weight number and says (nodding his head) ‘yeah, that’s me’ or (shaking his head) ‘no, that’s not me.’  If there has been a last-minute change in ordnance—let’s say they swap out a 1,000-pound bomb for a 500-pounder—he will say  ‘no not me, decrease it’ (hand signal, down) or ‘increase it’ (hand signal, up).  The guy with the grease board changes the weight until the pilot is happy.

“Once the pilot says, ‘yeah that’s me,’ the guy with the grease board shows it to the catapult operator (our guide simulates a man lifting up a board for someone else to see), who is at a control panel on the far-starboard catwalk. The guy then dials in that number to his catapult system and raises his hands. The catapult officer who is standing on deck by that aircraft, knows when he sees that guy’s hands up, that the correct weight is dialed into the catapult system.  He then tells the pilot, using hand signals, ‘crank up your engines.’ 

“The pilot runs the throttles all the way forward until he has got maximum power, checks his control panel and makes sure everything is good.  If he’s got max power, he salutes the catapult officer, at which time the cat officer returns the salute, drops to the deck and touches it.  The guy who is operating the catapult, whom we last left with his hands in the air, sees that and knows now is the time.

 “He hits a plunger and the aircraft is launched. It goes from zero to 165 miles an hour in 235 feet in less than three seconds.”


Next our guide invited us to walk along a catwalk known as “vultures row” to the chart room and to the bridge.  He explained that during flight operations there are about 325 people on the flight deck.  Many off-duty personnel like to watch what they do from the safety of the catwalk.

Pilots who can only see these people’s heads peering over the wall of the catwalk superstitiously imagine that the spectators are waiting for something bad to happen.  Vulture like!

Harry, who only a short while before had been bragging about the home movies he had taken of flight operations aboard the Bon Homme Richard, expressed amazement over the nickname that pilots had for him and other spectators.

 “I never knew that’s what they called us,” he said, shaking his head.

We’re cousins—or at least we have been ever since the lucky day I married his first cousin, Nancy, back in 1968—so I couldn’t resist.  “Squuaaawwwkkk!” I called back to him. 

We headed for the gift shop—which sells posters autographed by famous aviators and astronauts, in addition to the predictable Midway t-shirts and ballcaps—and then to the Fantail Café.  I was disappointed they didn’t have frappuccino on their menu.