Story and Photos By Wes Altom
If you visit Corpus Christi, it’s hard to miss the aircraft carrier Lexington. The ship looms large in the harbor against the city skyline, an icon of steadfast and dedicated service to our nation spanning nearly a half century, and a testament to the volunteers and staff who pour their hearts into maintaining and improving this living museum for all to enjoy. An Essex-class carrier built in World War II, “Lady Lex” was decommissioned in 1991, with an active service life longer than any other Essex-class ship. In 1992, a deal was struck bringing the ship to Corpus Christi to serve as a museum. In 2003, Lexington was designated a National Historic Landmark. Though her surviving sister ships Yorktown, Intrepid, and Hornet carry lower hull numbers, Lexington was laid down and commissioned earlier, making Lexington the oldest remaining aircraft carrier in the world.
Originally intended to be named Cabot, word arrived during construction that the USS Lexington (CV-2) had been lost in the Battle of the Coral Sea. She was renamed while under construction to commemorate the earlier ship. She was the fifth U.S. Navy ship to bear the name in honor of the Revolutionary War Battle of Lexington. She was built at the Fore River Shipyard in Quincy, Mass, and residents of Lexington and Quincy lobbied successfully for the name change. With a sense of pride and urgency, the new Lexington (CV-16) was completed and launched a full year ahead of schedule.
After training maneuvers and a shakedown cruise, Lexington joined the Fifth Fleet at Pearl Harbor. During World War II, the carrier participated in nearly every major operation in the Pacific Theater and spent a total of 21 months in combat. Her planes destroyed 372 enemy aircraft in the air and 475 more on the ground. She sank or destroyed 300,000 tons of enemy cargo and damaged an additional 600,000 tons. The ship’s guns shot down 15 planes and assisted in downing five more. The Japanese reported Lexington sunk no less than four times! Yet, each time she returned to fight again, leading radio propagandist Tokyo Rose to call her a ghost ship and the crew to nickname her “The Blue Ghost.” The crew of Lexington received the Presidential Unit Citation for heroism in action against enemy Japanese forces, 11 battle stars for major engagements during World War II service, and other awards.
Lexington continued service in the Pacific Seventh Fleet through the 1950s, then in the Far East, and in waters near home for the Cuban missile crisis in the early 1960s. In 1962, she began service as a training carrier, operating out of ports in Pensacola, New Orleans, and Corpus Christi.
In 1975 and 1987, Lexington, with the blessing and cooperation of the Navy, served as a filming location at sea. The films were the feature movie Midway and the TV miniseries War and Remembrance. In both cases, she was altered to the extent possible to resemble other vessels, Enterprise (for War and Remembrance) and Yorktown (for Midway) by adding anti-aircraft cannons and operating World War II vintage Navy aircraft. Lexington was also used (though tied up to her pier) for filming of the 2001 film Pearl Harbor, where she was altered to resemble a Japanese carrier, as well as Hornet.
On 15 June 1992, the ship was donated as a museum and now operates as the USS LEXINGTON Museum on the Bay at 2914 North Shoreline Blvd. From the very first day of operation as a naval aviation museum, the Lexington has remained totally self-sufficient, never having received funds from local, state or federal government agencies. The museum has relied solely on revenues generated from grants, donations, admissions, ship’s store sales, and special events. These revenues have covered all expenses not only to operate and maintain the ship but also to fund all capital improvements as well. If you haven’t visited recently, check it out again on your next visit. The staff and volunteers are constantly adding exhibits and improving the realism of the experience.
There are five, self-guided tour routes on the ship, covering 100,000 square feet and eleven decks (Wear comfortable shoes and allow several hours to maximize the experience.). There are also 20 aircraft aboard on loan from the National Museum of Naval Aviation. The ship additionally has a mess deck café, a 3D mega theater, virtual battle stations, a flight simulator, and a gift shop. If you want “bonus coverage,” go for the Hard Hat Tour, which is a guided tour of 15 areas of the ship not open to the general public. If you think you’re a “Top Gun,” try the Flight Operations Tour and take part in the daily operational sequence of a Naval Aviator. A favorite among young museumgoers is the Youth Overnight Program. Qualifying organized youth groups can participate in a real-life, hands-on overnight program that builds camaraderie, inspires love of country and is just plain fun! The overnight stay includes tours of the ship, a movie in the 3D mega theater, two trips through the chow line, bunking in original crew quarters, an unforgettable flag ceremony, and more! Lex won the 2014 Certificate of Excellence from TripAdvisor and ranked as the number one attraction in Corpus Christi. To learn more about the museum, check out usslexington.com.