The USS Lexington has gracefully retired from fighting ship to military museum.
The USS Lexington used about seven tanks of fuel despite serving in active duty longer than any other aircraft carrier in the history of naval aviation. The 880-foot long ship had the capacity to carry 1.5 million gallons of fuel. Seven fill-ups would have been enough to take her around the globe at a top speed of 34 knots.
After 48 years in the American arsenal, the aging war ship was retired to a berth across the ship channel from downtown Corpus Christi. As the USS Lexington Museum on the Bay, the ship that participated in nearly every major operation in the Pacific Theater during World War II has become a monument to the men and women who served their country.
Decommissioned on Nov. 26, 1991, the ship opened as a repository of military artifacts in 1992. The ship's flight deck and hanger deck are the home to 19 vintage aircraft from the N3N Yellow Peril biplane with fabric-covered wings to the sleek jets used in Vietnam. Displays throughout the ship illustrate the working conditions and accomplishments of the men and women who manned this floating air base. The Lexington was the first carrier to have female crewmembers.
Entering the hanger deck at mid-ship is stepping into another world. The cavernous room is one of three hanger bays on the ship. At one end is the Big Swing Cafe and at the other is the Joe Jessel Mega Theater, the only IMAX theatre south of San Antonio.
The hanger deck, one level below the flight deck, also contains a flight simulator, gift shop, and demonstration cockpits. A large display of aircraft engines illustrates how the rotary piston motor worked and evolved. For much of the aircraft carrier's service, the propeller-driven aircraft were the tools of the trade.
After the hanger bay, the place to start a tour of the carrier is on the flight deck. At 910 feet long, the landing and take-off zone looks surprisingly small even though it is the size of three football fields. From an aircraft coming in for a landing, the pitching and rolling deck must have looked minuscule.
The aircraft displayed on the deck are a cross section of aviation history. Most of the Naval fighters like the F-4A Phantom II and A-7B Corsair II were small, maneuverable jets. Looking into the cockpits gives a new respect for the pilots who crammed their bodies into a very tight spot.
From the flight deck, climb up the tower, or "island," as it is called, to the bridge and sit in the captain's chair. This high vantage point offers a spectacular view of the planes below and the Corpus Christi skyline in the distance.
It was on the backside of the island that the Lexington took her most dramatic battle damage. In a spot now marked by a Japanese flag, a kamikaze attack hit the operations tower on Nov. 5, 1944. The suicide bomber killed 50 seamen and wounded more than 200.
Wandering the bowels of the ship gives a feeling for how cramped such a large ship could be with a crew of 1,550 sailors. Nearly every room of the ship has pipes and conduit running overhead like a giant factory. It must have been a noisy, hot, and smelly place to work.
The 16 decks of the ship were an actual floating city with barber shops (one for the officers and one for the enlisted men), machine shop, hospital, post office, library, and other necessities.
It was down in the engine room near the giant wheels that controlled the ship's speed that visitors have reported meeting a blue-eyed sailor in dress whites giving detailed descriptions of how the equipment worked. Since no such person was on the volunteer staff and no one could find the man again, the staff began wondering if the engine room was haunted. The local newspaper got into the search for the apparition and installed a live "Ghost Cam" broadcasting over the Internet (www.caller.com/specials/cams/ghostcam/main.html). Thus far, no sightings have been confirmed.
This USS Lexington is actually the fifth war ship named for the Revolutionary War battle. The first was purchased in 1776 by the Continental Congress. The second was a sloop-of-war that served from 1826 to 1855 including sailing to Japan with Admiral Perry. During the Civil War the Navy had a side-wheel steamer with the name.
The fourth Lexington was a battle cruiser converted to an aircraft carrier. At sea during the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Lexington was sunk in the Coral Sea. When the news of the loss reached the mainland, the name was given to a fifth ship.
When it was commissioned on Feb. 17, 1943, the Lexington was one of the largest ships in the world. The steel hull displaces 42,000 tons and has four propellers 16 feet in diameter. It was one of the few large vessels painted blue instead of camouflage gray. The Japanese propagandist, Tokyo Rose, proclaimed the ship sunk four times during the war, giving it the nickname the "Blue Ghost."
The USS Lexington Museum on the Bay is open daily from 9am to 6pm. The ship is grounded in the sand and mud near the Texas State Aquarium on the north side of the ship channel bridge off U.S. 181 at 2914 N. Shoreline Blvd. Admission ranges from $7 to $10. The ship also offers overnight camping trips for nonprofit youth groups. For more information, call 361/888-4873 or visit www.usslexington.com.
544th in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of Day Trips 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.