Living history in Corpus Christi
A time machine floats in Corpus Christi Bay. Step aboard the USS Lexington, the world’s oldest aircraft carrier and now a museum, and travel into a past full of heroes and danger.
First, some context. Corpus Christi has been a military town since U.S. General Zachary Taylor’s army set up camp in 1845 while preparing for war with Mexico. Although the army remained in Corpus fewer than two years, there have been several other noteworthy periods when the military was part of the community. Since 1941, Corpus Christi has been home to the Naval Air Station, which houses a number of tenants, the largest of which is the Army Depot, the primary aviation maintenance depot for Department of Defense rotary wing aircraft.
Although military installations are large and visible, they aren’t tourist destinations. Still, there are accessible places that can be visited. Corpus Christi is one of the busiest commercial ports in the country — with large ships regularly sailing by downtown — but only one ship, a World War II aircraft carrier, remains moored at the entrance to the inner harbor for all to see.
Commissioned in 1943, the USS Lexington served in the Fifth Fleet and engaged in nearly every Pacific operation during World War II. The Japanese nicknamed the ship “The Blue Ghost” when she reappeared after thought to be sunk on four different occasions.
The USS Lexington Museum on the Bay opened in 1992. Since then, over 5 million people have explored the history aboard the ship. Visitors follow signs to five self guided tours, from the hangar deck to deep into the lower decks. The tours cover over 250,000 square feet and 11 decks. Exhibits show how the Lexington and her crew steamed into battle.
Packed on board the Lexington are many exhibits and attractions. They include modern and vintage aircraft on the flight deck, flight simulators, the three-story-high 3D Mega Theater, virtual battle stations, cutaway engines and an impressive scale model gallery.
Rows of aircraft gleam in the sun on the flight deck. The 20 aircraft on loan from the National Museum of Aviation range from Top Gun’s F-14 Tomcat to the 1934 N3N Yellow Peril. The Yellow Peril’s name could not have instilled much confidence in the thousands of pilots who used it as a training plane during the ’30s and ’40s.
Lexington’s scale model gallery, the largest in Texas, has over 370 pieces covering all types of planes, ships and military equipment. Creating the gallery required the work of over 120 volunteer craftsman and thousands of hours.
Visitors to the Lexington get a glimpse of Pearl Harbor without going all the way to Hawaii. “Pearl Harbor: Course of Valor” is supported by state-of-the-art animation, digital projection and powerful sound systems, while “Pearl Harbor: The Making of a Movie” includes props, transcripts and other materials used to make the Academy Award-winning 2001 film Pearl Harbor, parts of which were filmed aboard the ship.
Youth groups take part in a unique experience. Over 200,000 participants from around the country have spent a night aboard the Lexington and acted as her crew. Groups band together to withstand kamikaze attacks, eat in the galley, bunk in original crew quarters and join in an unforgettable flag ceremony.
Throughout the museum, volunteers stand ready to answer any questions. Among them are WWII veterans of the Lexington. “When I’m on board sharing with people, it’s more meaningful,” says Merton Bobo. “They’ll remember that, not necessarily what they read in a history book.” Bobo donated his medals, memorabilia and flight jacket for an exhibit that includes a plane on the hangar deck bearing his name.
Volunteer Bob Batterson adds, “This ship gives us, the volunteers, an opportunity to express how important this ship has been to the survival of our country. She’s a battled-scarred veteran. We can instill in visitors the feeling that this is their ship also.”