Conceived as a beefier “battle carrier,” the Midway-class aircraft carrier featured an armored flight deck was more resilient and better able to recover from dive-bombing and kamikaze attacks – and to ensure that it could still carry enough planes to do the job the ship was longer than three football fields.
Six of the nearly 1,000 foot long behemoths were planned, and three were built. And from her launching on March 20, 1945 USS Midway (CV-41), which was named after the decisive World War II carrier battle fought just three years earlier, was the largest warship on the planet.
The USS Midway arrived too late for World War II, and was commissioned on September 10, 1945 – but she would play a major role during the changing geopolitical climate of the Cold War. For 47 years, as the longest-serving aircraft carrier in the 20th century, she was a pioneer as well; the first American carrier to operate in sub-Arctic midwinder, which required the development of new flight deck procedures, and became the only ship to launch a captured German V-2 rocket and then sent a patrol plane aloft to demonstrate that atomic bombs could be delivered from a carrier.
Midway‘s sister ship USS Franklin D. Roosevelt (CV-42), the first carrier to be named for a former U.S. President, became the first carrier to have a planned jet-powered landing on her deck. She also demonstrated carrier long-range attack capabilities when a P2V-3C Neptune took off and flew over Charleston, South Carolina to the Bahamas to the Panama Canal and then finally to San Francisco – a total of 5,060 miles and the longest flight ever made from a carrier deck.
Along with the third sister ship USS Coral Sea (CV-43), USS Midway and USS Roosevelt were modernized for jet aircraft in time for the Vietnam War. USS Midway pilots shot down the first and last MiG fighters of the Vietnam War, and the ship led the evacuation of Saigon in 1975 rescuing more than 3,000 refugees in two days.
“They were the perfect ships for what the U.S. Navy needed,” said Mike Fabey, America’s Naval reporter for Jane’s. “We needed a much larger carrier to maintain our global navy.”
The arrival of these large carriers came at a time when the United States was becoming a global superpower, and these ships played a key role.
“You could say America was getting the keys to controlling world events,” Fabey told The National Interest. “Ships like Midway were what were needed to keep the peace and maintain order, especially in the Western Pacific. You needed a different kind of ship.”
Today the supercarrier isn’t really such a novel concept, but in the early Cold War, this wasn’t so readily apparent.
“The Midway shows something about the concept of the carrier at large,” explained Fabey. “It is a floating city/airfield/naval base. The ships were designed for a particular war, but were able to morph to stay on patrol longer.”
Then there is the fact that this class of warships was able to hold such a significant number of aircraft – upwards of 130 in the immediate post-World War II era, and still nearly 70 more modern aircraft.
“This is very important because it is very much the aircraft and the carrier,” added Fabey. “Without the aircraft you really just have a super ugly cruise ship.”
On April 11, 1992, after 47 years, the first of the class and the last to remain in service was finally decommissioned. Midway didn’t arrive in time for World War II, but along with her two sister ships played a crucial role in the Cold War – remaining in service through the 1991 Gulf War. Today she is preserved as a museum ship in San Diego.
Peter Suciu is a Michigan-based writer who has contributed to more than four dozen magazines, newspapers and websites. He is the author of several books on military headgear including A Gallery of Military Headdress, which is available on Amazon.com.