Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The USS Midway Museum

Aboard the USS Midway, San Diego, Oct. 2014
[For our reunion newsletter]
Name the biggest star of the San Diego reunion. Joe Ciokon would be an obvious choice, but the correct answer is the USS Midway Museum, all 70,000 tons of it. The ship is more than 3-times longer than AFVN’s Saigon tower is tall. This vintage vessel is so heavy, that fuel efficiency is measured by gallons per mile, not miles per gallon. It takes 260 gallons of fuel to go one mile. No wonder the carrier fleet went nuclear.

About 30 former broadcasters and spouses gathered on the pier for Joe’s welcome, which came with a warning: “There are things that can hurt you if you don’t watch out where you’re going. Tall guys got to duck low, and step high when you go over the knee-knockers.” We boarded the Midway and quickly separated into smaller groups, to ease our way through the tight compartments and narrow passageways. It was slow going; like many of us, the Midway is nearly 70 years old (next year).

It was fascinating to see how they shoe horned an entire community into a floating military installation, including an airport, police and fire departments, clinic, post office, power company, dining facilities, and even a jail, where you can take your picture in the brig. Mike Goucher declined the behind-the-bars photo op, saying, “too many people I know would cheer!”   

If it were possible for a Vietnam veterans group like ours to adopt a ship, the Midway would be a perfect match. Starting in the early days of the war, her pilots shot down multiple North Vietnamese Migs. When Saigon fell, the Midway was there again, and evacuated thousands of South Vietnamese who helicoptered out from Ton Son Nhut. Ann Kelsey, who helped in the mass exodus, was impressed: “It felt strange to know they had landed on the flight deck I was walking on.” The Midway was still saving Vietnamese 14 years later, when the carrier group rescued 92 “boat people” on two wooden sampans, while crossing the South China Sea.*

The Navy selected the ideal class of warship as the namesake for the 1942 Battle of Midway. Five carriers were sunk, four of them Japanese. Nearly 400 planes were destroyed (both sides combined) during four days of fighting.  Some of the Japanese ships were the same ones that attacked Pearl Harbor a few months earlier. The naval battle at Midway was a decisive American victory. A movie on the legendary naval clash will premier in a new theater on the Midway’s hanger deck in 2015.

Today, on a good Saturday, as many as 7,000 visitors step back into history, just like we did. We got to see other veterans, some were tourists and some were the docent guides who really knew their topic. What a thrill it must be for the old Navy veterans who live in San Diego to have the Midway in their backyard. Ron Hesketh didn’t mince words with his reaction: ‘What a tour! Wish we had more time.” That’s what everyone was saying, except for those in the same boat as Tim Abney, who shared this lament on Facebook: “I sure wish I could have made it.”

Prowling through the USS Midway Museum is worthy of anyone’s bucket list. Just seeing those enormous anchor chains was impressive enough, each link as wide as a seaman’s shoulders. I imagine most of us came away with new respect for the sailors and Marines who deployed off the coast of Vietnam enduring such claustrophobic and austere living conditions. I’d say AFVN was pretty good duty, although those upcountry TV trailers might compare to the elbow room of the Midway.

Imagine what it would be like if our Saigon headquarters had been preserved as immaculate as the Midway: the news set with Bobbie’s weather map, the old radio studios, control boards, turntables and cart machines, the film chains, tech room and snack bar. Perhaps a Navy bulletin from the “Five o’clock Follies” on the newsroom copy desk, listing another “kill” by the crew of the USS Midway.

A salute to Joe for a terrific day, the comp tickets, VIP treatment and an unforgettable experience. Maybe he’s the biggest star of the reunion after all.

*On July 3, 1989 CBS News broadcast this radio story on the Midway carrier group’s liberty call in Thailand.

"This beach resort south of Bangkok is like a temporary American colony. Eight US Navy warships are anchored off the coast of Thailand as more than 7,000 sailors are preparing to celebrate the 4th of July. The town of Pattaya is all decked out for the occasion—they don’t burn the Stars and Stripes here—it’s displayed proudly along with banners that say “Welcome US Navy.” An embassy official says simply, Thailand is the favorite port call for the 7th Fleet. And, the Thai tourism industry goes all out to please the US sailors; from the bar owners serving cold beer, to the bar girls with warm smiles. More than 100 US warships will bring more than 100,000 servicemen to Thailand this year, the most since the Vietnam War. Rick Fredericksen, for CBS News, in Pattaya, Thailand.”

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Amercan Forces Vietnam Network: 2014 Reunion

Group Photo: San Diego, October 18, 2014 
The men who broadcast radio and television to American forces during the Vietnam War, including technicians, administrators, announcers and newsmen. We broadcast the moon landings, civil upheaval and assassinations in America, plus the antiwar movement that would lead to the fall of Saigon. Our audience didn't miss a beat as rock and roll became a favorite music genre. We came from all branches of service and totaled more than 1,000 during the course of the war. We also introduced TV to South Vietnam and provided our host country with its own TV channel, for Vietnamese language broadcasts. The native Vietnamese husband and wife (near each other in first and second row) were our special guests; former "boat people" and now patriotic Americans, who lifted our spirits for the closing banquet.