The USS Midway’s Aircraft Were Credited with the First MiG Kills in Vietnam

Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images

Air battles became very common during World War II. As a result, the leading powers in the world had to build more aircraft carriers. The USS Midway (CV-41) went into production during the middle of the conflict and was launched just eight days after the Japanese surrender.

Over the next 47 years, Midway became one of the most important aircraft carriers in the US Navy’s fleet.

The construction and early operations of the USS Midway

While construction began on the USS Midway during World War II, the vessel was not ready in time to participate in the conflict. She was laid down in Newport News, Virginia in October 1943 and launched on March 20, 1945. Just over five months later, she was officially commissioned, with Capt. Joseph F. Bolger in command.

Early on, Midway, then with the CVB-41 designation, participated in Operation Frostbite, where the Navy tested the Ryan FR Fireball and helicopter rescue techniques, and Operation Sandy, the first time a rocket – more specifically, a captured V-2 rocket – was launched from a moving platform.

V-2 rocket being launched from the USS Midway (CVB-41)
A captured V-2 rocket being launched from the USS Midway (CVB-41) during Operation Sandy, September 6, 1947. (Photo Credit: U.S. Navy / U.S. Navy All Hands Magazine / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Midway, by then redesignated CVA-41, was involved in controversy in Apartheid South Africa during the 1950s. The aircraft carrier was docked at Cape Town, with plans for her crew to be segregated. There was anger in Washington once the plans were realized. Minnesota Senator and future Vice President Hubert Humphrey wrote in a letter to Secretary of State John Foster Dulles:

“To me, this is a shocking act of discrimination that should not be tolerated by our Government. Every American soldier or sailor is an American regardless of race, colour or creed, and is entitled to be respected and treated as such anywhere in the world.”

Operations during the Vietnam War

The USS Midway first set sail for Vietnam in March 1965. Jets flying from the aircraft carrier to conduct air operations included F-4 Phantom IIs and A-4 Skyhawks, with two of her Phantom IIs credited with the first confirmed MiG kills of the conflict. A year into her deployment, however, Midway was sent home for massive renovations. It took until January 1970 for the vessel to be recommissioned.

USS Midway (CVA-41) at sea
USS Midway (CVA-41) leaving San Francisco for Vietnam, 1972. (Photo Credit: Underwood Archives / Getty Images)

Midway returned to Vietnam in 1971. During 1972’s Operation Linebacker, the aircraft carrier was responsible for aiding fighting planes and rescuing downed pilots. Following the war, President Richard Nixon issued a Presidential Unit Citation to the vessel and Carrier Air Wing 5 (CVW-5). It read, in part:

“During this crucial period of the Vietnam conflict, USS MIDWAY and embarked Attack Carrier Air Wing FIVE carried out devastating aerial attacks against enemy installations, transportation, and lines of communications in the face of extremely heavy opposition including multi-calibre antiaircraft artillery fire and surface-to-air missiles.”

The USS Midway took part in Operation Frequent Wind

The USS Midway returned to Vietnam in 1975 to take part in Operation Frequent Wind. The North Vietnamese were in control of a significant portion of South Vietnam, and Midway helped ferry jet fighters to and from the area.

Major Buang Lee landing his Cessna O-1 Bird Dog on the USS Midway (CVA-41)
Major Buang-Ly successfully landed his Cessna O-1 Bird Dog on the USS Midway (CVA-41) during Operation Frequent Wind. (Photo Credit: USS Midway / Naval Aviation News / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The most memorable part of Operation Frequent Wind was the piloting of Maj. Buang-Ly. He was a major in the Republic of Vietnam Air Force, and looking to ensure his family’s safety loaded them into a two-seater Cessna O-1 Bird Dog and took off.

He approached Midway and was able to communicate his escape. Helicopters were ordered to make room for the aircraft, and once this was done, Buang-Ly landed the O-1. Afterward, Capt. Larry Chambers commended him on his excellent airmanship.

The USS Midway was the flagship during Operation Desert Storm

While the USS Midway, with the final designation of CV-41, was involved in a number of missions in the 1980s, her most well-known one was during Operation Desert Storm.

An F-18 Hornet flying over the USS Midway (CV-41)
An F-18 Hornet flies over the USS Midway (CV-41), 1989. (Photo Credit: CORBIS / Getty Images)

During Operation Desert Storm, Midway launched aircraft from CVW-5 in the first carrier strikes of the war. She also launched the first F/A-18A Hornet squadron to use an AGM-62 Walleye in combat. After one of the bombs destroyed an Iraqi Super Frelon helicopter, Midway moved closer to Kuwait, where the vessel stayed for the remainder of the conflict.

Following the Gulf War, Midway sailed for Yokosuka, Japan.

The USS Midway has hosted some interesting events in retirement

The USS Midway was officially decommissioned in April 1992, during a ceremony attended by then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney. The aircraft carrier eventually made her way to San Diego, California, where she was transformed into a museum.

Sloan Stephens and Christina McHale playing an exhibition tennis match
Sloan Stephens and Christina McHale play an exhibition tennis match aboard the USS Midway (CV-41), 2012. (Photo Credit: Kent C. Horner / Getty Images)

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The vessel currently serves as a museum, where visitors can get an up-close look at the fighter planes used over the last 50 years. There are also other fun events held aboard the aircraft carrier. In 2012, Midway hosted the Carrier Classic, where Syracuse University and San Diego State University played each other in basketball. That same year, tennis players Sloan Stephens and Christina McHale played in an exhibition match onboard the vessel.

Locals can also enjoy movie nights, which run throughout the summer months.