San Diego: where pop culture meets military history

This time last year, I was in the US attending San Diego Comic Con; the biggest pop culture event in the world – and, this year, I’m home enduring a Melbourne winter. But I keep hearing all this wonderful news from San Diego via Twitter and Facebook, and I’m actually really surprised by how much I miss being there (with my people). So I guess attending another San Diego Comic Con is on my bucket list. But, in the meantime, to keep me sane, I thought I’d share this article that I wrote for Mufti, the magazine I edit for the Victorian RSL. Who would’ve thought that I’d be able to find such a fun link between my geek life and work life?

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The ‘Embracing Peace’ sculpture by Seward Johnson depicts one of the most iconic moments in the history of the US; it was inspired by the spontaneous and joyous celebration that broke out in New York’s Times Square when people heard that World War II had ended. Here a newly-wed couple mimics the pose.

San Diego in California, USA, has something for everyone. There is the historic Gaslamp District, right in the heart of downtown, with its fine restaurants, rooftop bars and assorted galleries. Nearby, there is the waterfront Embarcadero (which means ‘landing place’ in Spanish). This is a boardwalk (and cycle path) that winds its way alongside San Diego Bay, taking in the Navy Pier, Seaport Village, USS Midway Museum, the Maritime Museum and other attractions. Further afield, via a trolley from downtown, are Balboa Park and the San Diego Zoo. And that’s barely scratching the surface.

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This ‘national salute to Bob Hope and the military’ is one of the many sculptures in the parks surrounding the USS Midway.

USS Midway   

With 47 years of active service, the USS Midway is the longest-serving carrier in US Naval history, and, today, is berthed in San Diego Bay, as the USS Midway Museum. It sits alongside historic Navy Pier, from which tens of thousands of sailors and Marines embarked to war; many to never return.

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The impressive USS Midway is permanently docked in San Diego Bay.

When I ventured aboard the USS Midway, I was astonished by its sheer size. The flight deck is a massive 1001 feet long, which is about the length of three football fields. With only half a day to explore (which isn’t really enough), I got a brief overview by doing the self-guided audio tour. Narrated by Midway sailors, this tour takes you to exhibits such as the crew’s sleeping quarters, the galley, engine room, ship’s jail, post office, the flight deck and the bridge. There are more than 60 exhibits, 29 restored aircrafts and two flight simulators – for those adventurous souls who want to take a spin in the sky.

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A guide demonstrates how, in the early days, Landing Signal Officers had to operate hand-held flags to guide pilots onto the flight deck. Today, they are assisted by computers. The planes slam onto the flight deck, on an area the size of a tennis court, and the pilots have to hook on to one of three arresting wires. The landing speed is 150 miles per hour, stopping in 2.5 seconds.

The USS Midway, named for the Battle of Midway, was commissioned on 10 September 1945, just as World War II ended. Its service included the Cuban Missile Crisis, Vietnam, an Iranian hostage crisis, and the liberation of Kuwait; and it also served on many humanitarian missions. Key moments included, Operation Frostbite, in 1946, which saw Midway as the first carrier to operative extensively in the sub-Arctic; in 1963, the first successful landing using ‘hands off’ auto pilot technology; in 1975, rescuing 3073 refugees in two days during the evacuation of Saigon; in 1991, being the flagship of Persian Gulf air operations in Operation Desert Storm; decommissioning in 1992; and opening as the USS Midway Museum in 2004.

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The USS Midway was the first ship in the world too large for the Panama Canal. Visitors can explore the aircraft, enter helicopters and climb up to the bridge.

The ship is the size of a small city and is equipped with restaurants, a hospital, shops, a library, a jail and power plants. There was a fully equipped print shop, with newspaper staff producing the Midway News. Volunteer radio personalities provided an eclectic mix of music from Jerry Lee Lewis to Bon Jovi, which prompted one person to say: “Most everyone on Midway liked at least some of the music, some of the time.”

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Signboards near the aircrafts provide information such as: “The S-3 Viking was the first sub-hunting carrier jet. Equipped with radar, sonobuoys, magnetic detectors, the S-3 was a vital part of the carrier battle group’s submarine protection.”

San Diego Comic Con

San Diego Comic Con (SDCC) is the biggest pop culture event in the world, with 130,000 attendees over four days. I think of it as geek heaven, as it showcases film, television, comic books, anime, video games, fantasy novels and more. For film and television, there are trailers, new releases and cast/crew panels. In the Exhibit Hall, traders sell everything from pop vinyl collectibles to books and comics; while at the television network booths – such as Warner Bros – there are celebrities signing autographs periodically over the weekend.

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The San Diego Convention Centre is the home of San Diego Comic Con.

The huge crowds are not restricted to the convention centre; they spill out onto the streets and into the adjacent historic Gaslamp Quarter. The restaurants and bars are buzzing, full to the brim with music and laughter, so it’s an exciting atmosphere.

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The Gaslamp District throngs with people during San Diego Comic Con.

While braving Comic Con crowds is not for everyone – and accommodation costs do soar outrageously – you might be surprised by some of the offerings. I happened upon a panel with representatives from the US Department of Defence (DoD) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). The officers talked about the requirements for procuring DoD and DHS support in the entertainment realm, and what assets and services can be provided. They talked about how they wanted films, television, books and other creative media to accurately portray servicemen and women, so they provide expert consultation for free. They have two caveats; that there is no additional cost to the US Government or any possibility of compromising operations.

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US Air Force Entertainment Liaison Director, Lt Col Glen Roberts; US Coast Guard MOPIC Director, Cmdr John Pruitt; and US Army Public Affairs-West Deputy Director, Lt Col Tim Hyde made an appearance at San Diego Comic Con.

Projects that the DoD and DHS have consulted on include Hawaii 5-0, NCIS, NCIS New Orleans, Superman, Iron Man 1 and Iron Man 2. By the time Iron Man 3 was being made, the production didn’t need as much help, as they had already captured much of the action on green screen. It was an interesting talk, but I must admit, I spent most of my time at SDCC at sci-fi/fantasy panels; rather than anything bordering on reality.

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Storm-troopers are a common sight during San Diego Comic Con.

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Cosplayers at San Diego Comic Con.


Supernatural stars Jared Padalecki, Jensen Ackles and Misha Collins at the NerdHQ panel.

San Diego Zoo

San Diego Zoo has a big reputation and usually features on most visitors’ must-see list. It’s home to more than 3500 rare and endangered animals, and has a botanical collection of more than 700,000 exotic plants. I visited on a hotter-than-usual summer’s day, so took advantage of the Skyfari Aerial Tram and the narrated Guided Tour Bus to get around.

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The Skyfari is the best way to get to the other side of the 100-acre property, and it’s via a very cool cable-car above the treetops. There are incredible views of the zoo and the surrounding Balboa Park, before it drops you off near the popular polar bear enclosure. This was my favourite exhibit, as I got to watch the playful bears swimming and diving in their plunge pool. In the underwater viewing room, I saw one of the bears swim close to the glass, as he nonchalantly checked out the humans standing on the other side.

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A polar bear swims past onlookers at San Diego Zoo.

Later, after the bus tour, I wandered along the beautiful Fern Canyon Trail to find the Panda Trek. San Diego Zoo has three giant pandas – Bai Yun, Gao Gao and Xiao Liwu – and the trick is to make sure you visit early. There is a small-group tour that starts before the zoo opens, but I was lucky enough to catch one of the pandas mid-morning just before she retreated into her enclosure to get out of the stifling heat. She was curled up in a ball, munching happily on a piece of bamboo; the epitome of cuteness!

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The giant panda enjoys munching on bamboo.

I only had a few hours at San Diego Zoo, but you could easily spend a day or two seeing everything on offer.

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There have been some very fun photographs of my favourite guys (from Supernatural) coming out of San Diego Comic Con this year – which is probably why I want to be there. Here are a couple that have made me smile.

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Jensen Ackles and Jared Padalecki sit with life-size pop vinyls of their Supernatural characters.




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