As I have hinted at, my modeling endeavors do go beyond model railroading. Going back as far as pre-adolescence, I’ve had a fascination with military models, including aircraft and especially navy ships. However, I hadn’t built a model of one since I was a teenager. And in fact, many of my models met rather dramatic ends. (One involved a motorized version of the Franklin D. Roosevelt, which took its final cruise on Viele Lake in Boulder carrying a cargo of firecrackers and a slow-burning fuse. A sudden loud bang and the ship was simply… not there. These days you’d be arrested for that.)
As an adult, there was an understanding in our marriage that I should limit the number of hobbies I allowed to dominate my time, with which terms I fully concurred. I tend to go off the deep end. However, with time and more prosperity and fewer children in the home, these restrictions have been relaxed. The first foray back into shipbuilding was initiated by a decision to do a solid for a buddy of mine. His father had served on the USS Kitty Hawk during the late 1970s, and I decided to surprise him with a kit of said ship, and help him build it. Since I wanted it to be a companionable enterprise (so to speak), I decided to build a ship of my own. My own interests favor the WW2 era, and I scored a kit of the IJN Kaga from eBay. For those who don’t remember, she was one of the six Japanese aircraft carriers taking part in the Pearl Harbor Raid, and one of the four that was sunk at the battle of Midway some six months later. As things turned out, I couldn’t wait for schedules to align and actually built the Kaga before we ever started on the Kitty Hawk. So, I got a kit of the USS Enterprise (CV-6) and built that alongside its later, newer cousin when we finally got our timing worked out. Those ships are for another post to come later. (Not coincidentally, it was planes from the Enterprise that sank the Kaga.)
Meanwhile, I had gotten to take a tour of the actual USS Midway, now a museum ship in San Diego harbor. Dude, if you ever get the chance to visit her, DO IT! It’s a rather mind-blowing experience for those who haven’t served in the Navy. In 2001 I had toured the USS Lexington at Corpus Christi, but the Midway was more impressive, mostly because of her larger size. I also had a digital camera, and took a couple hundred photos. From that time in 2013 I had vainly haunted the internet looking for a kit of her in her later configuration. Finally in late 2016 I spotted one on eBay, a 1/800 scale model made by Arii, and basically paid whatever it took to win the auction. Don’t ask me how much, that’s a closely-guarded secret, but your whole family could eat well at Olive Garden and leave a substantial tip for the lucky server, too…
Thus the background. This spring I finally cleared the schedule and got out the kit of the Midway. I had been plowing around the internet for images for quite a while, and I began studying them– as well as my own shots– and I slowly began to realize that this was going to be a bigger challenge than I had realized. Because, as it turned out, the Midway was sort-of the Navy’s own 1:1 scale modeling project. Not only had they completely rebuilt the ship twice, they never stopped twiddling and tweaking her. Much like many railroad projects, a modeler must ultimately select an era or even a date and then build the model to match that timeframe. This is either really frustrating, or really challenging and satisfying, depending on your commitment and personality.
Let’s take a step back and answer the question: Why model the Midway? Maybe some historical perspective would help. There are many good references out there (e.g. Navsource Online), but here are the high points. The Midway was designed as the lead ship of a new class of aircraft carrier, first laid down in 1943 and completed a week after the Japanese surrender. It was far larger than any existing carriers; indeed it was the largest ship in the world of any kind for a full decade. When it was designed, the idea of the angled (“canted”) deck had not yet been floated, as it were, so Midway’s deck was straight– meaning, takeoff operations on the bow, landing operations on the stern, with one shot at landing. Only in the 1950’s were some carriers retrofitted with an angled deck that allowed aircraft to touch-and-go in case they failed to snag an arresting cable with the tailhook. This also allows plane-launching to carry on simultaneous with landing ops, something impossible on traditional carriers. Midway received that modification in 1957, which also included an enclosed “hurricane” bow, relocated elevators, and stronger catapults. In this configuration she served during the early parts of the Vietnam war. Meanwhile, newer classes of “super-carriers” were being developed that could outperform the Midway class and their older cousins, the modified Essex-class ships. Midway was thought to be large enough for additional modifications, so she went back into the shipyard in February 1966. When she emerged in January 1970, after massive cost overruns, her flight deck space had been increased to four acres, along with many other improvements.
It is roughly this stage in her history that the Arii kit reproduces. Unfortunately for us modelers, it was not long before more modifications cropped up. In rough order, these were: removal of the three remaining 5-inch guns; addition of a radar sponson on the starboard side of the island structure; construction of a new radar room and tower abaft the funnel (and eventual removal of the radar array from the previously-mentioned addition); construction of new communications rooms atop and on starboard side of the island; addition of Sparrow missile batteries on starboard bow and portside aft sponsons. Dating from 1970 her seakeeping was worse than before– too much weight and spread on that 1943 hull, even though it had been widened somewhat. In 1986 the ship went back into the yard for wider hull blisters to try to correct the problem, but the engineering was faulty and the ship’s dramatic roll speed actually increased. Studies were done to correct the issue, but funding and time ran out. The grand old lady still served up through the Gulf War, where she was flagship in the Persian Gulf, and the following year she assisted in the Subic Bay evacuations after Mount Pinatubo exploded. That was it; she was retired in 1992 after 47 years of service. She was reborn as a museum ship in 2004.
The Midway was a one-of-a-kind ship for her last two decades. The other two ships in her class never received the later upgrades. She bears a distant resemblance to the larger “supercarriers” built from 1958 forward, but any close examination quickly reveals her unique characteristics. Perfect for a modeling project!
So, you get an idea of the modeling challenge: one must basically pick a year and learn everything about that time that one can.
Taking the kit out of the box, I jumped in happily and started cementing things together. I got as far as installing the 5″ guns when I happened to realize that I could not recall seeing these in any photos. Research quickly revealed that they’d been removed in the late 1970s (summer of 1977, as it turns out). I thought it over and decided to remove the guns, since I wanted to model the 1980’s configuration. I cut them off and started to scratch-build Sparrow launchers, when I noticed that the aft sponsons (below the flight deck) didn’t seem to be shaped anything like the photos. Back to the research. This is where I discovered that nasty bit about the 10-foot-wide blisters installed on each side of the hull. Widen the hull? How was I supposed to do that? The more I thought about it, the more impossible it seemed to do it right. And thus was born a compromise: I would focus on the topside modifications and basically not worry about the hull. It had other problems anyway, and it just wasn’t worth the extra man-hours to try to fix it. So I installed the Sparrow launchers, and roughed up a couple of Phalanx batteries for the starboard and port quarter sponsons (I had to add platforms for these), and just called it good. Sue me.
All of this led me to put a halt to construction and spend a bunch more time researching the ship. Google Images. Wikipedia. Air group histories. Midway veterans websites. And I realized that I needed to pick a date and stick to it. Once confronted with that decision, I realized what I really wanted to do was capture the ship’s final blaze of glory, Desert Shield/Storm. The Gulf War was the era I wanted.
NEXT UP: Building the USS Midway as she appeared in 1991