This vet don’t take no prisoners.
910 N. Harbor Drive, San Diego
The USS Midway is open for business again. And down below in her bowels, lives are being lived and relived.
“The only comparison with the Battle of Midway in 1942,” says this elderly gent sitting at a table right beside a prop-driven Avenger warplane, “is the Battle of Salamis in 480 BC. Because a very inferior fleet decimated a big one. Now, we found out that the Japanese were going to land a fleet on Midway. Admiral Nimitz...”
The little cluster around him hasn’t had to time read the literature on the table. They don’t need to. He has their full attention.
“...The Japanese Admiral Nagumo had [his carriers] send out scouts. To find us. And their planes spread out over the Pacific like a paw.” The commander splays out a hand.
“And the one scout that saw us? He had radio trouble.” He laughs at how fickle fortune can change history. “No shit. Our carriers Enterprise and Hornet launched 36 dive-bombers each. Within minutes of getting there, they sank the first three [Japanese carriers], and the fourth one went down in the afternoon. We knew where they were. It was an absolute miracle that we found them, because they had found out about our fleet and we caught them [on deck] changing from bombs to torpedoes when we hit them.”
Don Hubbard, nuclear pilot.
Commander Hubbard sits at one of a bunch of way stations where you can stop and talk to actual fliers and navy guys who have walked the walk. He is 94 years old.
But is he with it? As soon as I come, he looks at his watch and says, “You’re late! You’ll never get anywhere if you can’t be on time.” The guy takes no prisoners.
Which you have to respect, because he has flown everything from biplanes to jets, in wars from WW2 to Vietnam. He flew an AJ-2 “Savage” bomber that always carried a nuclear device — meaning bomb — for a quick response. He had a priming “key” in his pocket, which he loaded inside the bomb before taking off for patrol say, 200 miles east of Okinawa. He’d come back and land that big, heavy (33,000lb) bomb-carrying bomber on the heaving decks of carriers such the USS Bennington. “So you did need to get your landings right,” he says.
Open for business again.
Five bells ring out, a bosun’s pipe flares its three-note whistle throughout the hangar deck.
It’s impossible not to think of Tom Brokaw’s phrase “Greatest generation” when you listen to the man talk. We’re looking at a picture of a bomber he flew out of Gibraltar. It shows the plane against the colony’s massive wall of rock. “The next flight after I left that plane, it was shot down.”
The whole hangar deck has this quiet buzz of guys, mostly, talking to dads, mostly, and their wives, and their kids, in clusters in the Midway’s gloomy below-deck, between planes. You see them point with red laser lights to aerial shots, flying shots, buddy shots, chopper shots. The words “Inchon,” “Da Nang,” ‘Berlin,” and Cdr Don’s “Salamis” pop out of the buzz.
An Asian couple with a baby daughter comes up. “Where are you from?” says the commander.
They’re from Seoul, South Korea.
“Here, come over here, little girl. Would you like to fly one of these?”
Don poses for a picture with them all. The wife, next to him, clutches a toy dog in a blanket and her purse. “Because she could,” he says to her. “These days, she could have as good as life as I’ve had.” He turns to the little girl.
“Now, which plane do you want to fly?”