During the past two summers, one of my greatest memories in the city of New York was a daily passing image of a spectacular view to and from my commute to my internship. This was an image that really drew my attention away from the hustle and bustle of the city towards an attraction meant to stimulate a tranquil environment of commemoration yet simultaneously invite curious exploration. This image continues to sit powerfully in my mind as much as the attraction does in its current location at Pier 86 on West 46th Street, situated on the Hudson River. This unique image is of none other than the USS Intrepid.
The USS Intrepid is an aircraft carrier that was in active service during the Second World War, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War. It is the fourth ship in the US Navy to bear the name Intrepid. Since 1982, it has served as the centerpiece for the Intrepid Sea, Air, & Space Museum, attracting more than 1 million visitors annually. The ship is still an aircraft carrier, but for planes of the past rather than those intended to be used in the future. Some of its main exhibits include the submarine Growler, the only guided missile submarine open to the public, and the Concorde, a former passenger airliner that could travel faster than the speed of sound. In addition, guests can view live recordings and photos of the ship’s history, as well as hear stories from tour guides or actual former veterans. I personally had the pleasure of visiting the museum twice, once during summer break in high school and once in college. Both times, the attraction that most captured my interest was the Space Shuttle Pavilion, newly opened after the Space Shuttle Enterprise was loaded onto the Intrepid in 2012.
While the Intrepid is much more widely known by tourists today due to its stored collection of aircraft artifacts, the ship was built in December 1941 to fulfill a markedly different purpose. The Intrepid was designed as a warship to prepare veterans for high-risk aerial combat with the mission to defend the nation and ensure safety and freedom from enemy threats. The US was already at war when the Intrepid was officially launched in 1943, immediately putting the mission of the ship into effect. The crew was to approach future engagements with the enemy with unfettered fearlessness and audacity that reflected the heroism and spirit of those who had fought in previous conflicts, in order to appropriately embrace the values embedded in the name Intrepid. The crew members, who built a shared sense of camaraderie knowing that the next deployment may very well have been their last, proudly sailed as one unit dedicated to its mission, thereby symbolizing the same courage and sacrifice the ship had aimed to convey when the crew first boarded.
After the Second World War, the Intrepid was redeveloped to serve as an anti-submarine carrier against the Soviets. Coupled with this was its successful role as a recovery vessel for the Mercury-Atlas space mission in 1962 and the Gemini mission in 1965. Thus, the Intrepid had established its status as a major player in the early stages of the Space Race. This marked a departure from its earlier image of violence, fraternity, and survival during combat towards one of exploration and nationwide pride. In an interview, the late Mercury Seven astronaut Scott Carpenter states that upon reentry into the atmosphere that fateful day, he did not feel concern and that he knew exactly where he was. He was referring to the success of his mission and the newfound hope that the NASA program had in pushing forward their progress towards manned spaceflight. As the nation witnessed the splashdown of the Mercury spacecraft, Carpenter was the first person to carry the memory of feats accomplished through space exploration onto the ship, which was further propagated after the Intrepid again rescued two astronauts from the Gemini mission three years later.
As shown by various examples throughout history, the efforts of only a few people can be effective enough to permanently transform the meaning of an event or object. The fate of the Intrepid in its later years was no exception. Its transformation was marked by overturning the decision to take the battle-scarred Intrepid to the scrapyard and converting the ship into a museum in 1982, thanks to the efforts of philanthropist Zachary Fisher. His passionate commitment to the armed forces resulted in the goal to allow the former warship to be a monument to “honor our heroes, educate the public, and inspire our youth.” Fisher’s nephew says that his uncle’s choice had been due to the fact that the Intrepid was the Lady in the Harbor that bled so the other Lady in the Harbor, meaning the Statue of Liberty, could hold her torch. In honor of their service, veterans are offered free admission to the museum, allowing them to more intimately connect with the honorable actions of their predecessors on the ship, continuing the same tradition as the 3,200 men had during the Second World War of keeping alive the spirit of those who had fought in previous conflicts. In contrast to the time period during the war, the experience of the public is no longer separate from the experience of the veterans and former crewmembers, who are unified by a common theme that is best exhibited by the current status of the ship as a museum: education. While most traditional war memorials educate the public about the people who lost their lives and the importance of remembering their courageous sacrifice, the Intrepid couples this primary purpose with the additional objective of motivating the members of future generations to gain valuable experience in the fields of science and history, through internship programs such as GOALS for high school girls and professional development seminars hosted by staff and astronaut or veteran guest speakers. Through communication with veterans on visits which include celebrations during Veteran’s Day, the legacy of the ship’s impact on the history of the United States is made accessible while the former crew members are gifted with the ability to learn about the challenges faced and interpretations of the experiences lived by students, teachers, and veterans of the present generation. Upon revisiting the Intrepid for its 75th anniversary, former flight deck crew member John Olivera, in a documentary by Time, said, “I become very emotional to see that it’s still here and that I actually served on it.” With mutual education, honor, and exploration thriving on the ship, the public is able to actively aid in the fulfillment of the ship’s current mission, by remembering the events that occurred, admiring the additional aircraft artifacts that contribute to the educational value, and for the younger population, developing valuable skills that will be of benefit in future careers. As a GOALS ambassador writes about her experience, “It’s important to try and communicate as effectively as possible because it can allow you to accomplish things that you never thought you could.” Through the Growler submarine docked on the side of the entrance and the Enterprise shuttle in the top floor pavilion, the Intrepid captures the impact of humanity on the horizons both above and below that which it has served on sea level, reflecting the impactful outreach the ship has had and will continue to have on members of past, present, and future generations.
If I had to pick a shortlist for a good vacation trip this summer, this would be it. It will be great to see it with new eyes after learning about it in one of my classes. I would definitely recommend it to anyone planning to visit New York this summer or anytime. Now that the semester’s over, and I am graduating, I don’t believe the excuse of having exams or assignments will stop me from immersing myself in the intellectually inspiring environment that the Intrepid aims to display to all those who visit.