November 29, 2020

Alameda’s USS Hornet museum will adapt to, survive pandemic, director says


On Memorial Day about 25 years ago, retired U.S. Naval Reserve Capt. Michael C. McCarron stood atop a ridge on Japan’s Okinawa Island. Looking down the sheer, jagged cliffs to the sea, he pictured American troops of his grandfathers’ generation scaling the tortuous terrain — Marines and soldiers who hadn’t showered, slept in a bed or brushed their teeth in months and were strafed by enemy fire that rained down relentlessly from hidden crevices and caves. Even so, they pushed upward.

“I remembered that no matter how bad I have it, someone has had it worst than I have, so I can adapt,” he recalled in a recent interview.

During the COVID-19 pandemic’s sweeping devastation, McCarron applies that adaptive mindset to his position as executive director of the USS Hornet Sea, Air and Space Museum in Alameda. The World War II aircraft carrier-turned-museum is a national historic landmark, Smithsonian Affiliate and 501(c)(3) nonprofit, which means the Hornet is supported primarily by members, visitors (including individuals and school groups), community and special events and corporate donors.

With a broad platform of educational programs and activities, the ship is a family-friendly, multigenerational experience that has unfortunately been closed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Completely reliant on memberships and donations for its financial survival, the museum is offering reduced memberships through the end of May (among others, the most popular $90 family membership is now $50 and $1,000 Hornet Ambassador membership is now $750), and McCarron says the museum has also received flat-out cash donations.

“We get maybe one or two of the $1,000 donations a month. And we’ve seen a 10 to 15% increase in the family memberships we needed for our cash flow. It’s a win-win: The money came immediately, and then the new members, we hope, will renew when the membership expires next year.”

Appeals for support necessary to bring furloughed staff onboard and allow McCarron to develop and expand online tours and other new-paradigm virtual initiatives are ongoing. A letter sent out in April drew a solid response, but as the initial surge spiked and tapered — a natural, expected cycle, according to McCarron — recovery from nearly three months of lost revenue continues to hit hard. Looking at the calendar past this year’s annual Memorial Day and Fourth of July celebrations, now postponed until 2021, he considers late-summer camps and fall school tours now in jeopardy and imagines reconfigurations of Halloween festivities and the New Year’s Eve bash that are major fundraisers.

“We have to keep our fingers crossed that we can do the end-of-year events, but in the meantime ….”

In the meantime, McCarron holds onto memories of the Memorial Day Vietnam veterans tribute and the old-fashioned July Fourth party with fireworks previously planned for 2020. Especially dear to him is the nationalization service held July 3, with new citizens taking the oath of allegiance.

“It’s the most moving event we have,” he says. “If you haven’t seen it — well, there’s not a dry eye or a face without a smile in the crowd.”

With the focus pivoting to interactive online content, McCarron and education programming staff are hopeful that Alameda County and the Bay Area and state’s directives will ease but remain mindful that eventual in-person plans must be structured and conducted with safety as the primary concern.

“We have a dichotomy in that we have wide open spaces like the flight deck but very confined spaces below deck. It’s charming to see what it’s like to live as a sailor, but we can’t have people in those tight spaces now.”

Ideas actively pursued or on staff wish lists include a below-deck escape room adventure made virtual, “Movie Under the Stars” weekend screenings held on the flight deck with social-distancing maintained, a package of virtual tours led by the museum’s docents and special “insider” online content offered exclusively to members.

McCarron served the Navy in the mid-1980s in the 47th aviation squadron at Moffett Field in Santa Clara County, among other posts held before serving as a reservist until 2006. Asked how his family history shaped him and a generation of his peers, he says he was fortunate to grow up near his grandparents.

“During World War II they were employed working on projects involving radar. I remember hearing about them having ration stickers and my mom talking about going without sugar. An entire nation was undergoing sacrifice.”

In 2020 and with COVID-19 “drafting” people worldwide into a life-threatening economic and health battle, there are parallels and contrasts.

“It’s not just people in uniform anymore. Now we have restricted movements, requirements to wear masks and supply shortages,” he noted.

Perspective causes McCarron to add, empathetically that “It’s a small price to pay compared to World War II, but people have never experienced it before. It’s a commitment to a greater goal: finding a vaccination and a new normal. I look at my kids who are adults. They’ve never had anything more than everyday life stress. They got shocked with 9-11, but within a year or two, life was pretty much back to normal. This is different.”

The adaptive mindset kicks into high gearand McCarron suggest we’ll figure it out.

“That’s what I hear from other families in Benicia, on the cul-de-sac where I live. We sit, gather our chairs 6 feet apart and talk outdoors. One guy is a dentist and has to dress in almost a moon suit to keep his practice going. We’re feeling our way through it. We’ll push on.”

To learn more about what’s going on at the Hornet museum, visit

Lou Fancher is a freelance writer. Contact her at

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Author: Lou Fancher