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During the summer of 2000, on a trip from San Antonio to the beach, Terry Leber drove across Harbor Bridge with his wife and grandson. As he came to the crest of the bridge, he laid eyes on what was once his home over 40 years ago—the USS LEXINGTON Navy Aircraft Carrier. Stunned and in awe, he had no idea the USS LEX resided in Corpus. “When I saw it I was assuming it was in port, so I didn’t even know at first that it was a museum.” He jokes, “I was so in shock I almost drove off the bridge!”
Excitedly, Leber brought his family aboard to give them an impromptu tour. “We drove over and spent the rest of the day on the LEXINGTON. I had my 4-year-old grandson with me showing him everything on the ship…eventually, we made it to the beach!”
This month marks the 25th anniversary of the ship being decommissioned for the second time. The USS LEXINGTON was commissioned in 1943, but soon after it became a legacy ship. The LEX Museum’s website explains, “LEXINGTON was originally named the USS CABOT. During World War II, final construction was being completed at Massachusetts’ Fore River Shipyard when word was received that the original carrier named USS LEXINGTON, CV-2, had been sunk in the Coral Sea. The new carrier’s name was changed to LEXINGTON.”
She lived two lives before her permanent home was made in Corpus Christi—a warship shooting Japanese submarines and a training carrier that prepared every Navy pilot who flew in the Vietnam War. Between 1943 and 1962, LEX saw extensive service through the Pacific War. She then lived several more decades as a training carrier before being decommissioned in 1991. According to the museum, “With an active fund-raising campaign in place and strong community support, the Corpus Christi City Council endorsed a $3 million dollar bond sale to finance the project.” Though several other communities vied for LEXINGTON, with a strong and supportive community, the USS LEX was awarded to Corpus Christi.
On June 8 in 1992, the United States Navy officially signed over LEX to city officials and a week later she was towed to North Beach. The USS LEXINGTON was opened to the public in October 1992.
Leber is currently a volunteer tour guide aboard the LEX—and an amazing one at that— but his history with the aircraft carrier began in 1969. While attending college in Ohio, he decided to take a leave of absence to join the Navy. Leber’s next two years of active duty working aboard the legendary aircraft carrier were enthralling, educational, tough, and empowering.
Following his exciting and eventful two years of active duty, Leber headed back to school. His active duty on the ship built credit toward college, and paid for a substantial portion of his tuition. However, he gained more than college credit. “I was a different student before and after my military experience…I went back as a man.”
He spent his time as a member of the Air Operations Division. “Day to day, we managed all the squadron’s schedules, assigned radio frequencies, and did lots of record keeping—from every pilot’s fuel status to how many touch-and-go landings they did. I also worked the radar domes as Air Traffic Control to make sure every pilot was where they needed to be.”
When Leber needed a moment to himself, he’d head to the flight deck, one of his favorite parts of the ship. He reveals, “It looks like chaos but it’s an absolute dance. Everyone knows what they’re doing. It's a pleasure to watch. Every chance I got I’d come down and watch the flight deck. I could go out at 3am and it’d be dark and quiet, and then a screaming jet would come in for a landing.”
Despite his essential time on the Gulf-stationed aircraft carrier, he says he learned very little about the ship’s story. “It wasn’t until I became a tour guide that I learned all the amazing history.”
Leber says, “I love that the younger generations who only see World War II as a story in a textbook can see it come alive here. People of all generations connect with the Vietnam era, and those who come to Corpus Christi on vacation really have a reason to come see this ship.”
After living for years in San Antonio, Terry Leber retired to Corpus Christi to be closer to family. He says it was an easy decision to become a volunteer at the museum. Not only does he get to meet other veterans, but with a smile, he says, “My favorite part is when I connect with that one person in a group who all of a sudden has an interest in history and in the ship and they start asking questions.”
“I got to give a former captain a tour. He brought his family, son and grandson. I got to tour 3 generations. It was an honor and I was intimidated. How do you tell the captain of a ship about his ship? But we both ended up asking each other lots of questions and it was a great day—also, I had a 93-year-old gentleman who had been on this ship when it was a WWII war ship in the 1940s. I could ask questions and he knew stuff nobody else knew,” Leber revels.
It’s an honor and privilege to meet veterans like Terry Leber. A guided tour by him on the very ship he served upon is nothing short of extraordinary. When aboard, do yourself a huge favor and speak to one of the many men dressed in yellow. These veteran volunteers bring the illustrious history of the USS LEXINGTON back to life.