Key point: America knows how to build really good, long-lasting warships. The USS Midway is a case in point.
On March 20, 1945 the shipyard in Newport News, Virginia launched what would remain for a decade the largest warship on the planet. Named USS Midway after the decisive World War II carrier battle, she would be commissioned September 8 just a few weeks after the Japanese surrender.
Few of the over four-thousand-man complement departing on Midway’s first patrol could have imagined that same ship—admittedly, in drastically modified form—would be sailing into combat forty-six years later, her deck laden with supersonic jet fighters.
Midway was joined a month later by New York-built sistership USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (or ‘Rosey’), the first U.S. carrier to be named after a former U.S. president. The last ship of the class, USS Coral Sea, was launched in 1947.
The Midway-class was meant to be a "beefier battle carrier" compared to the twenty-four Essex-class carriers that entered service in the latter half of World War II. Naval engineers particularly sought to introduce an armored flight deck. British carriers with armored decks proved more resilient and quicker to recover from dive bombing and kamikaze attacks that crippled U.S. flattops. But armored flight decks were also considerably heavier, limiting deck size and number of aircraft carried.
The American engineers went big to get both deck armor and more planes. The Midway measured longer than three football fields and could carry an unprecedented 130 aircraft: four squadrons of gull-winged Corsair fighters and three of Helldiver bombers. Three-and-a-half inches of armor plating protected her flight deck, while eighteen five-inch 52-caliber guns were mounted to blast attacking aircraft from afar. Sixty-eight rapid-firing 40-millimeter and 20-millimeter cannons provided close protection.
The ships could attain 33 knots powered by twelve boilers turning four Westinghouse steam turbines, but consumed 100,000 gallons of fuel daily, necessitating refueling every three days.
Indeed, the Midway-class’s sheer size caused numerous problems. 130 aircraft proved too many to effectively coordinate, so their air wings were downsized back to 100. Their huge crews made life onboard especially crowded. And the carrier’ great weight left them riding low in the water, causing excessive seawater to slosh on deck and flood gunwells. The unwieldy vessels tended to plow through waves rather than riding above them—once resulting in one of Midway’s aircraft elevators being torn off during a storm.
The Midways arrived just as the Navy was exploring how to adapt to the dawning jet- and nuclear-age. In 1946, an XFD-1 Phantom jet landed on the Roosevelt’s deck, the first ever planned jet-powered landing on a carrier. A year later, the Midway test-launched a Nazi V-2 ballistic missile off her deck, the first such large rocket fired from a moving ship. Then in 1949, a P2V Privateer patrol plane carrying a 5-ton bomb load took off from the deck of Coral Sea boosted by JATO rocket packs—proving that a nuclear-capable aircraft could be based on a carrier. The following year, the Roosevelt became the first carrier to carry nuclear weapons.
Landing fast and heavy jets remained a major challenge, as demonstrated in a famous 1951 recording of an F9F Panther on the Midway striking the ramp while landing, slicing the front of the fuselage from the plane and sending it rolling down the deck. Amazingly, pilot George Chamberlain survived.
Safer, sustainable jet operations required a larger flight deck. In the mid-1950s, the Midways underwent SC-110 refits replacing their “strait” decks with a longer “angled” configuration incorporating additional steam catapults, increasing deck size and displacement considerably. The formerly open hangar deck below was enclosed, and new radars, a “mirror” landing system, and strengthened elevators to lift heavier aircraft were installed.
The class missed action over Korea, though Midway did assist in evacuating thousands of Chinese Nationalists in the wake of the Battle of Yijiangshan island. The three Midway-class carriers finally saw combat in Vietnam, by which time two-seat F-4B Phantom II fighters capable of flying twice the speed of sound were catapulting off their flight decks.
On June 17, 1965, two Phantoms from VF-21 detected bogeys” on radar, in an engagement described in Peter Davie’s U.S. Navy Phantom Units of the Vietnam War.
The Phantoms carried radar-guided AIM-7D Sparrow missiles which had a long minimum range—but were required to visually identify enemies before firing! Pilots Louis Page and David Batson used a tactic in which one Phantom charged towards the incoming jets, causing them to pull away and reveal their profile—four MiG-17s, slower but highly maneuverable Soviet-built jets. Batson and Page’s Sparrow missiles each splashed a MiG. A third was destroyed after its engines sucked in debris from its wingmates.
A year later on June 20, 1966, four Midway-based A-1H Skyraiders, old-fashioned piston-engine ground attack planes, was on a search-and-rescue mission when they were warned of two approaching MiG-17s. The Skyraiders flew in circles hugging the side of a mountain for cover. The MiGs swooped down spitting cannon shells at the lead Skyraider—but the two A-1s behind him pulled up and raked the jets with 20-millimeter cannons, shooting one down in one of the unlikelier kills of the conflict.
The Coral Sea, which was officially adopted by the city of San Francisco, also saw extensive action over Vietnam, though not all of her crew were happy about it. Some famously circulated a petition opposing the war, and three hundred participated in a peace march.
The two carriers remained involved to the very end, however. In 1972, aircraft from Midway and Coral Sea mined Haiphong harbor and blasted a North Vietnamese land offensive—measures which ostensibly pressured Hanoi into the ceasefire at the Paris peace conferences. Then on January 12, 1973, an F-4J based on the Midway shot down another MiG-17 in the last air-to-air kill of the Vietnam War.
That same year, the Coral Sea ferried Phantom jet fighters to Israel during the Yom Kippur war and Midway became the first U.S. carrier to have its home port deployed overseas to Japan, reducing operating costs and keeping sailors’ families closer.
The carriers were involved in additional adventures. When the government of South Vietnam fell in 1975, helicopters from the Midway and Coral Sea rescued over 3,000 Vietnamese fleeing northern troops. Famously, Vietnamese Major Buang flew to the Midway in a dinky O-1 observation plane with his wife and five children crowded inside, and dropped a message indicating he wanted to land. As the O-1 circled overhead, Captain Larry Chamber tossed helicopters overboard to make room and turned the ship into the wind. Finally, Buang landed the overloaded Cessna to the applause of the crew (see a recording here).
Coral Sea subsequently dispatched A-7 and F-4N jets to attack Khmer Rouge forces and recovered helicopters carrying U.S. Marines during the disastrous Mayaguez hostage-rescue operation.
By then, the Midways were growing long in the tooth, lacking the deck space for new F-14 Tomcat interceptors and S-3 Viking anti-submarine jets. This led to the decommissioning of the Roosevelt in 1977. On her final cruise, she experimentally carried the Marine Harrier jump jets of VMA-231.
Meanwhile, the Midway’s decks were further expanded until they resembled a weird jigsaw puzzle piece, though the Coral Sea retained a “straighter” configuration. Their carriers gun batteries were replaced with Sea Sparrow missile launchers and automated Phalanx close-in-weapon systems.
The Reagan administration’s military buildup kept the aging carriers on duty through 1980s, flying older F-4S Phantoms and A-7 Corsairs. However, they also received brand-new FA-18 Hornet multi-role jets with modern avionics that could land on shorter flight decks.
FA-18s from the Coral Sea repeatedly intercepted Libyan MiGs over the Mediterranean. Finally in 1986, they flew the Hornet’s first combat mission, using a HARM radar-homing missile to destroy an S-200 surface-to-air missile battery in Sirte, Libya, in retaliation for a terrorist attack in Berlin. The Midway, meanwhile received new hull blisters designed to stabilize her.
The Coral Sea, nicknamed “Ageless Warrior,” was finally retired in 1990 and scrapped in Baltimore. But the Midway, despite an unsuccessful hull-blister upgrade that actually worsened the “Rock’n Roll” carrier’s long-running instability and a deadly explosive accident in 1990, still had one more war left in in her. Deployed in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, she launched 3,339 combat sorties. Her A-6E Intruder jets were amongst the first to hit Iraqi targets in the conflict, and her helicopters even liberated a Kuwaiti island.
Finally, on April 11, 1992—forty-seven years after she had been launched—the Midway was decommissioned. Today she serves as a museum ship in San Diego.
As the Midway-class carriers expanded in size they never entirely shed their early design flaws. Yet they repeatedly adapted to new technological paradigms and rendered history-making service for nearly a half-century—a record any ship designer would envy.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring. This first appeared in April 2019.