On a recent visit to San Diego, I decided to go to the USS Midway Museum. It was definitely one of the highlights of my trip and brought back memories of my years in Hawai’i. (Similar to San Diego, Honolulu has a strong Navy presence, and is home to the USS Arizona Memorial and the USS Missouri Memorial at Pearl Harbor.) Also, as a fan of the Navy and as someone who once considered joining the Naval Facilities Engineering Command (NAVFAC) as a community planner, I was very excited to be aboard the historic aircraft carrier and had a great time learning more about this “city at sea” and its history.
Commissioned a week after the end of World War II, the USS Midway was the largest ship in the world until 1955. It was also the first American warship that was too large to pass through the Panama Canal. She served for an unprecedented 47 years, saw action in the Vietnam War, and was the Persian Gulf flagship during Operation Desert Storm in 1991. Decommissioned in 1992, she is now a museum ship. During my tour, I got a glimpse of almost 50 years of world history aboard this longest-serving aircraft carrier of the 20th century. The self-guided audio tour was very informative, and helped me to explore the 60 exhibits throughout the aircraft carrier and learn about the 29 restored aircrafts. (To get a preview of the aircrafts, check out the photographs at this link.) Exhibits range from the sailors’ sleeping quarters to a massive galley, chapel, engine room, the ship’s jail, officer’s country, post office, machine shops, and pilots’ ready rooms, as well as primary flight control and the bridge high in the island over the flight deck. I was awestruck upon setting foot on the flight deck. I simply had no idea how large it was! I also enjoyed spending time on the deck because it offered such an amazing view of downtown San Diego and the bay.
So, you may be wondering, why was USS Midway called a “city at sea”? Well, actually, the term is not just limited to Midway, but can be applied to all large aircraft carriers. After all, each of these ships is home to between 5,000 and 6,000 people working, eating and sleeping onboard for months at a time, and offers a variety of essential services that are available in cities (on land). Specifically, the ship is designed to provide everything its residents need to live. For starters, there are multiple eateries or galleys and mess halls onboard. Each ship also has a large laundry facility, chapel, dentist and doctor’s offices, post office, various stores, and telephones where personnel can talk to their loved ones via satellite. While these services are available, I can see from my tour of the Midway that living conditions aboard an aircraft carrier are far from ideal and most definitely not comfortable. I also learned that while today the flight deck might offer a great view for visitors like me, access to the area was extremely limited for personnel aboard the ship and they actually were not be able to go outside and breathe fresh air as often as they would like. For a great explanation of how aircraft carriers work and what life is like on one of these ships, I recommend reading this article on HowStuffWorks.
While doing research online, I discovered that there have also been efforts to develop civilian versions of cities at sea. The most famous proposal is perhaps the Freedom Ship. Freedom Ship was a floating city project initially proposed in the late 1990s. It was so named because of the “free” international lifestyle that the mobile ocean colony would promote. The project would not be a conventional ship, but rather a series of connected barges. The Freedom Ship project envisioned a a mile-long integrated city with condominium housing for 50,000 residents, an airstrip to accommodate turboprop aircraft, duty-free shopping and other facilities, including a library, schools, recreational facilities, and a hospital. In addition, Freedom Ship would offer retail and wholesale shops, banks, hotels, restaurants, entertainment facilities, casinos, offices, warehouses, and light manufacturing and assembly enterprises. At 4,320 feet long, 725 feet wide and 340 feet tall, the ship would be taller than the length of a football field and wider than two football fields put together. The complex would travel across the globe continuously, stopping regularly at various ports of call. Unlike the Navy’s aircraft carriers which offer challenging living conditions, the Freedom Ship is intended to house the rich and famous. Suites start at $121,000 for a 300-square-foot room and go up to $11 million for a 5,100 square foot suite on the ship’s exclusive 21st floor, where prices start at $3 million.
Obviously, Freedom Ship is a very ambitious project. While it may be an exciting and futuristic vision, it does not appear that the Freedom Ship will become reality anytime soon. Although the initially stated in-service date was to be 2001, construction had not begun as of September 2013. Freedom Ship International initially estimated the net cost for construction to be $6 billion in 1999. However, by 2002, estimates had escalated to $11 billion. The latest update to the company’s website (in July 2008) was a press release explaining the difficulty of obtaining reliable financial backing. If you are interested in learning more about the Freedom Ship and how it would work, check out this article on HowStuffWorks. To see some renderings of the Freedom Ship, please visit this page on The Weather Channel website.
If you have not been to USS Midway Museum, I highly recommend a visit. With projects like the Freedom Ship being far too complex and expensive to develop, the Midway might be the only way for civilians like me to see what a city at sea is like. Also, touring a historic aircraft carrier like Midway, has helped me to better understand the operations and traditions of the Navy, and gain greater appreciation for the sacrifices made by those serving in the military.
USS Midway Museum photos by author