2005-02-18—USS Midway tour
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
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?
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
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
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.
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
“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.
“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
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.