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Sitting in the Charleston harbor is one of the most unique attractions in the country, rich with a history that is steeped in the drudgery of dangerous and difficult work, strong determination, and death. But it also shouts to the world “we prevailed” in its triumphant call to action over decades of war and conflict.

Patriots Point Naval and Maritime Museum takes visitors deep into the harsh reality of war and the remarkable individuals who have given their service, and sometimes their lives, to this nation during times of crisis and times of peace. From the technological developments of aircraft to a lifelike replication of Vietnam visitors can experience history in a way that is rare and truly special. The USS Yorktown aircraft carrier towers over everything, including the Laffey destroyer that sits next to it. Inside the Yorktown is the Medal of Honor Museum. There is a great deal to see.

Navy veteran Thom Ford is Patriots Point’s volunteer coordinator. About 130 individuals volunteer their time there. As a tour guide his depth of knowledge is derived from more than reading and research as he is a former naval flight officer.

Ford explains that the Yorktown is the second of 24 Essex class aircraft carriers. Aircraft carriers are warships that launched aircraft as its main weapon offensive and defensive. “In WWII we were in dire need of mobility and firepower to win the war and a strategy called island hopping, combining task forces that centered on these large aircraft carriers and amphibious forces.”

The huge ship was not the first to carry the name Yorktown. In 1942 the original Yorktown was sunk during the Battle of Midway. “At that time this ship was under construction so it was renamed in honor of the previous ship. From the summer of 1943 and 44 the Yorktown was engaged in almost every major action in the Pacific until the end of the war,” said Ford.

It is the size of the ship that is so impressive when visitors get up close. Once inside there are steep staircases and narrow hallways that make a visitor feel like they are navigating a labyrinth, however, once they enter the vast hanger deck, filled with planes and exhibits, many just stand in awe at first, amazed at the scale of the place.

So how did this ship end up in Charleston Harbor? Ford said in the mid-1970s the Yorktown was supposed to be cut up and scrapped but the people of South Carolina decided they wanted to save the ship. “This was the first aircraft carrier museum ship in the world,” Ford said. The harbor was not deep enough to hold the ship, which has a draught of about 28 feet so a trench was dug from the main channel and a big hole dug in the pluff mud. “When the ship was brought in the bilges were filled with fresh water and the ship was sunk into the mud. About 20 feet of mud,” Ford said, adding it was not going anywhere, although it may have listed a tiny bit during Hurricane Hugo.

The ship held about 3,500 men. Ford said the new Nimitz class carriers hold 6,500. When walking past the impressive ship’s galley he reveals it served 10,000 meals a day. There are few areas on the ship that provide the usual comforts of home. Sleeping quarters are hammock-like bunks that provide no privacy and very little extra room. A top, middle and bottom bunk indicate how much time a person has put in on the ship, with more experienced men getting the top bunk, Ford said. Function is obviously king on an aircraft carrier.

The ready room did provide for socialization and a bit more comfort. “It was primarily for briefing for missions and debriefing for missions. But also, this was their office, their movie room, their goof-off room. If an aviator wasn’t eating, sleeping or flying, he was likely sitting around in the ready room. And in the post-World War II era, this was a helicopter squadron ready room, the other three ready rooms had been moved down to the second deck,” said Ford.

On the hanger deck Ford talks about WWII. He points to a large black and white picture that shows a Japanese aircraft carrier sinking after a battle with hundreds of men standing on its deck. “They’re not waiting to be rescued. They’re standing up there with their comrades waiting to go down. One of their (Japan’s) great weaknesses is they didn’t take experienced aviators and send them back home to train the future generation.”

Even at the end of WWII there was tragedy. Ford said on the day the Japanese surrendered on the USS Missouri, there were hundreds of ships in Tokyo Bay. “Yorktown was not there. She had aircraft airborne over all the Japanese airfields to make sure they honored the surrender that they were just signing. Unfortunately, there was a group of Japanese fighters that didn’t get the word or were violating the word. They attacked our aircraft that were airborne. There were losses on both sides at a time when the Japanese had actually surrendered.”

Throughout the walk on the hangar deck Ford reveals details about each aircraft, from those used in WWII to the Korean and Vietnam wars.

There is a Boeing-Stearman Model 75 that “was an advanced trainer for both Army and Navy aviators.” There’s a replica of the Apollo capsule because the Yorktown was “the recovery ship for Apollo Eight, which was the mission that went to the far side of the Moon and was the first mission that escaped the Earth’s orbit.”

Looking at another plane he explains how it was “our first carrier-based airplane with retractable landing gear. You see they’re kind of flimsy and everything.” The pilot actually had to hand crank (the landing gear) as he left the deck of the ship. “Very effective in World War II, all the way until the end of the war. She was upgraded to a more powerful engine and more guns and used on the smaller carriers.”

Even more interesting was who flew this particular plane – the first Medal of Honor recipient, Edward O’Hare. This heroic young man, whose father was murdered by Al Capone’s gang, shot down five enemy bombers in aerial combat. Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport is named for him.

Ford points to a Grumman Avenger bomber and explains that in 1944, George Herbert Walker Bush was a young pilot in one of those planes when he was attacking a Japanese communications station on an island called Chichi Jima. … The massive airplane with a crew of three was shot down and was rescued by a submarine (the USS Finback). “The crew launched a torpedo … big torpedo … terrible weapon. They had to go really slow and really low to release it so it had any chance of exploding. With the Battle of Midway, we lost the majority of three squadrons in that attack mode. Didn’t get a single hit on a Japanese ship. Terrible, terrible losses.”

On the flight deck on the top of the ship there are more modern aircraft to learn about, as well as some of the dangers faced by those working on that deck. “Just imagine, if you will, the launch of 75 airplanes. All of them with propellers turning all at once and guys weaving back and forth among them. Most of the launches in World War II were deck launches. They just went to full power and went off the deck. It only required maybe 75 knots to get airborne, so they didn’t need much speed. You got natural wind coming over the deck. Modern aircraft couldn’t possibly do that… jet aircraft. So they all go by catapult today. This ship had two catapults later in the war,” Ford said.

“There are hundreds of guys up here with various jobs identified by the color of their jerseys. You’ve got aviators coming and going to the airplanes, you’ve got traffic directors, you’ve got firemen, you’ve got fuelers, you’ve got all kinds of people all up here. All of them know exactly where they’re supposed to be and they better be there and nowhere else,” Ford said, adding “And their heads swivel at all times. One of the most dangerous places on earth to work is on a flight deck. They have to be prepared at all times for attack.”

“I was a naval flight officer. When we landed I couldn’t wait to get down below.” (Credit: Moultrie News)

Be sure to watch Bob’s video on PATRIOT’S POINT below!!!


Thom Ford – Navy Veteran and Volunteer at Patriot’s Point