Key Point: The ship had a record any ship designer would envy.
The world’s largest battleship for a decade was launched on March 20, 1945, at the Newport News shipyard in Virginia. She would be commissioned on September 8 and given the name USS Midway in honor of the pivotal World wαr II carrier cσmbαt, which occurred just a few weeks after Japan’s capitulation.
Few of the more than 4,000 men who set out on Midway’s first patrol could have guessed that same ship—admittedly in significantly altered form—would be saddling up for battle 46 years later, her deck crammed with supersonic jet fighters. The USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (aka “Rosey”), the first American carrier to be named after a past U.S. president, joined Midway a month later. Roosevelt was built in New York. USS Coral Sea, the final vessel of the class, 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 ധąɾ 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-bσmbing and kamikaze αttαcks that crippled U.S. flattops. But armored flight decks were also considerably heavier, limiting deck size and number of aircraft carried.
In order to achieve both deck armor and extra aircraft, American engineers went all out. The Midway, which was more than three football fields long, could transport 130 aircraft at once, including three Helldiver bσmbers and four squadrons of gull-winged Corsair fighters. Her flight deck was shielded by three and a half inches of armor plating, and she had 18 five-inch, 52-caliber guns placed to shoot down invading aircraft from a distance. Close defense was supplied by 68 rapid-firing 40 millimeter and 20 millimeter weαpσns.
Twelve boilers driving four Westinghouse steam turbines allowed the ships to reach a top speed of 33 knots, but they also used 100,000 gallons of fuel each day, requiring replenishment 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’s 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 bσmb 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 ωεɑρσռs.
According to a famous 1951 recording of an F9F Panther on the Midway hitting the ramp while landing, severing the front of the plane from the plane, and sending it rolling down the deck, landing fast and heavy planes remained a significant difficulty. George Chamberlain, the pilot, miraculously survived.
A larger flight deck was necessary for safer, longer-lasting jet operations. The Midways had SC-110 refits in the middle of the 1950s, which significantly increased deck size and displacement by replacing their “strait” decks with a longer “angled” configuration that included more steam catapults. New radars, a “mirror” landing system, and improved elevators to lift bigger aircraft were added, and the previously open hangar deck below was enclosed.
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 cσmbαt 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 ധąɾ.
The AIM-7D Sparrow missiles that the Phantoms carried were radar-guided and had a large minimum range, but they had to be visually sighted in their target before firing. In order to betray their profile—four MiG-17s, slower but highly nimble Soviet-built jets—pilots Louis Page and David Batson utilized a technique in which one Phantom charged towαrds the approaching jets. This caused the incoming jets to pull back and reveal their identity. Batson and Page’s Sparrow missiles each splashed a MiG. After its engines sucked in debris from its wingmates, a third aircraft was dҽstrσyed.
A year later on June 20, 1966, four Midway-based A-1H Skyraiders, old-fashioned piston-engine ground αttαck planes, was on a search-and-rescue mission when they were wαrned 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 ωɑɾ, and three hundred participated in a peace march.
However, the two carriers continued to be involved until the very end. North Vietnamese land offensives were bσmbed in 1972 and Haiphong harbor was mined, actions that purportedly forced Hanoi into the ceasefire at the Paris peace negotiations. The final air-to-air kill of the Vietnam wαr was achieved on January 12, 1973, when an F-4J based at Midway downed a second MiG-17. Midway was the first American carrier to have its home port transferred outside, to Japan, in the same year the Coral Sea sent Phantom jet fighters to Israel for Yom Kippur, cutting operational expenses and keeping sailors’ families close.
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 αttαck 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-ωεɑρσռ systems.
The elderly ships continued to serve until the 1980s, carrying older F-4S Phantoms and A-7 Corsairs thanks to the Reagan administration’s military growth. But they also got brand-new multi-role FA-18 Hornet fighters with contemporary avionics that could land on smaller flight decks.
Libyan MiGs flew over the Mediterranean and were frequently intercepted by FA-18s from the Coral Sea. In response to a terrorist αttαck in Berlin, they finally conducted the Hornet’s first cσmbαt mission in 1986 by employing a HARM radar-homing missile to dҽstrσy an S-200 surface-to-air missile battery in Sirte, Libya. Meanwhile, the Midway received additional hull blisters that were intended to stabilize her.
The Coral Sea, nicknamed “Ageless wαrrior,” 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 deαd ly explosive accident in 1990, still had one more ωɑɾ left in her. Deployed in the 1991 Persian Gulf ധąɾ, she launched 3,339 cσmbαtsorties. 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 diҽgo. 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.