As of the end of 2011, all remaining US troops in Iraq will have been brought home. (If only the same were true of our troops in Afghanistan.) Remember the old slogan for Navy recruiters that went “Join the Navy, see the world?” Yeah, well, the men and women of our military branches get to see the world, all right, but not really in the way most of us travelers would want to.
We go lay on beaches, take photos of ourselves in front of famous monuments, get our thrills from things like ziplining or bungee jumping, and stroll through museums learning about history from photos and objects and art. They go into war-torn countries in full combat gear, get shot at by snipers and dodge land mines, and create history—all while being kept away from their families for long stretches of time. While I sometimes have mixed feelings about the US government’s involvement in conflicts, I never have mixed feelings about the men and women who serve: I admire them, and I am grateful to them. So when I was in San Diego, one of my priorities was to visit the USS Midway, a former aircraft carrier-turned-museum at the Navy Pier on the waterfront.
This ship, the third to be called Midway (in honor of the Battle of Midway Island, a turning point for the US and its allies in World War II), was in service from 1945 through 1992, when it was decommissioned. Once upon a time, Midway was home to more than 200,000 men, the average age of whom was 19. (What were you doing when you were 19?) The Midway served in the Vietnam War and the first Gulf War, but also led humanitarian missions and sailed in every ocean on Earth before arriving in San Diego. The ship was opened as a museum in 2004.
You might think it a little sad that a ship with that kind of history is now a museum with a gift shop and a cafe and flight simulator photo opps. Cringe. But it’s a far better fate than selling it for scrap metal. History comes to life in the corridors of this ship in a way it wouldn’t had objects been removed from their natural setting and displayed in a regular museum.
In addition to 60 exhibits, the Midway Museum has 25 restored aircraft aboard. Climb the stairs to the deck and imagine what it must be like trying to land a fighter jet on a moving ship with such a limited “runway”. Via the audio guide, you hear stories of individual sailors who used to serve on the ship. As you tour the ship, you see where they slept, worked, got their instructions before heading off on a mission.
I think we all know serving in the Navy is no pleasure cruise, but it’s still startling to see how little personal space enlisted crew aboard this ship had. You think working in a cubicle is bad? Try living in this space, day in and day out for months on end:
As much as a collection of artifacts, the USS Midway Museum–and the area around it–serves as a tribute to the men and women who serve in the military.
Next to the Midway is Tuna Harbor Park, a small park dominated by a 25-foot tall statue of a sailor kissing a nurse, called “Unconditional Surrender”. The statue is modeled after a famous photo taken at the end of WWII. It’s one of those things you really can’t stop staring at. On the one hand, it evokes instant nostalgia for the ’40s, and on the other hand, it conjures up cheesy images of Attack of the 50 Foot Woman. That’s America for you. We always have to be a little over the top, even when our heart’s in the right place.
A more tasteful tribute in this park is the National Salute to Bob Hope and the Military, which features a bronze statue of Bob Hope doing standup in front of a microphone to an adoring crowd of military men and women. You can actually walk amongst these statues as if you’re part of the crowd at one of Bob’s shows. Bob Hope’s dedication to the USO and to boosting the morale of the troops is legendary. I’m sure the number of hours he spent entertaining the troops over the years is staggering. So it’s appropriate that he is honored alongside them here.
When in San Diego, I recommend spending some time on the USS Midway and in the area immediately surrounding it. If it doesn’t teach you something, it at least serves as a good reminder of the sacrifices of our military men and women. And it never hurts to be reminded of that.
What you need to know about visiting the USS Midway:
Location: 910 North Harbor Drive, San Diego
Getting there: You can drive and park in the lot at the Midway (for a fee). If you are staying downtown, you can walk there, take a cab, or take a pedicab for about $5. You can also catch a train or trolley to the Santa Fe Depot and walk the few blocks from there.
Hours of operation: 10am to 5pm daily (except Thanksgiving and Christmas days)
Admission fee: $18 per adult (includes audio guide in English, Spanish, or Japanese)
Facilities: 60 exhibits, 25 restored aircraft, a cafe, a gift shop, flight simulators, photo opportunities. Docent-led tours throughout the day.