USS TEXAS: 100 YEARS LATER
USS TEXAS: 100 YEARS LATER
By: Ben H. English
(Written in 2012)
If Douglas MacArthur was correct in old soldiers gradually fading away, then old sailors surely do the same by rusting into oblivion. Like the robust young seamen who once manned her battle stations, the USS Texas has grown weak and infirmed due to the ravages of Father Time. Earlier this month, she sprang a massive leak and took on thousands of gallons of water. Using pumps, hard work and a well placed rag; that leak has been temporarily halted. But the long lasting battle to save and preserve this century-old dreadnought continues.
Launched exactly 100 years ago, the USS Texas (BB-35) was never just another ship in the eyes of her crew or in the pages of history. Arguably the most powerful battleship in history at the time of her commissioning in 1914, the USS Texas served in both World Wars with distinction. She was also involved in a series of firsts during her decades of service.
Armed with a main battery of ten 14 inch guns and a secondary battery of twenty-one 5 inch guns, she weighed 27,000 tons and could make 21 knots. Those were very impressive numbers for their time; and the Texas was a massive physical example of the emerging strength and abilities of an American Navy bursting upon the world scene.
Not even having finished her initial shake down cruise, the USS Texas was rushed south into Mexican waters to respond to the so-called “Tampico Incident” in May of 1914. There she remained off the coast of Veracruz for the next two months in support of American shore operations, and as a looming reminder to all of the foolhardiness in taking arbitrary action against American citizens.
With the American entry into World War One in April of 1917, she was the lead American ship when Battleship Division Nine sailed into Scapa Flow in England. During the war, the USS Texas provided convoy security to and fro across the Atlantic. The dreadnought also served as a formidable block to keep Kaiser Wilhelm’s Imperial German Navy bottled up in their home ports. There would not be another repeat of the bloody and costly Battle of Jutland which occurred some two years before.
When the war ended, the Texas continued on with duties big and small which make up the tasks of a peace time navy. She was an escort for President Woodrow Wilson across the Atlantic during the Versailles Peace Conference. Additionally, the battleship made history in being the first American dreadnought to launch an aircraft. A platform was built atop the number two turret and a Sopwith Camel, flown by a navy aviator, did the honors. Shortly thereafter, she served as a plane guard for a U.S. Navy NC-4 flying boat, which was the first airplane to successfully cross the Atlantic.
Following a complete overhaul and refitting, the USS Texas became the flagship for the United States Fleet. With her lattice towers replaced by modern tripod masts and her power plants upgraded from coal burning to oil fired, she was still the best the United States Navy had to offer.
As the decades of peace went by, the Texas moved from one assignment to another, usually as a showpiece or a flag ship wherever she might be. Nearing the end of the 1930s, she was tasked with being the flagship for the newly created Atlantic Squadron. While on the East Coast the Texas provided for many a memory to young men attending Annapolis during summer cruises. These would be the same midshipmen and budding leaders who would face the Axis onslaught to come in less than three more years. The USS Texas would stand and fight alongside them through that bloody catastrophe without parallel.
On December 7, 1941, the world changed for America and the United States Navy. The Japanese aerial attack on Pearl Harbor propelled our unready nation on to the world stage in ways that many of our citizens, and leaders, had never imagined. With decades and many a nautical mile under her bow, the USS Texas was one of the oldest ships in our naval inventory. But with the loss of so many newer battleships in the Pacific, the Texas was called upon to fill the gap. She would do so ably in some of the biggest battles in World War II, and would face off against both Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
Though few Americans fully realize it these days, our nation was on the ropes in early 1942. We had suffered a terrible defeat at Pearl Harbor; and had lost ground in Guam, Wake, and the Philippines. One military disaster followed another around the globe. The Japanese not only were pushing us back; but also the British, the Australians, the New Zealanders, the Indians, the Canadians, the Dutch, and the Chinese. The Japanese Imperial Navy was arguably the finest fighting force of its type ever at this point, and had never sipped from the bitter cup of defeat.
In Europe, things were not much better. German Field Marshal Erwin Rommel was already a legend with his Afrika Corps, taking a numerically inferior force and running rings around the Allies there. England had barely survived the constant hammering by the Luftwaffe, and the Nazis had completely overrun most anything the Soviets could throw against them. The continent itself was almost completely controlled by Hitler and his armies. The situation was beyond grim. The United States itself had suffered a colossal sucker punch, and we were stumbling around inside a global-sized fighting ring trying to keep our feet and wondering what exactly had happened.
Near the tip of the spear, the good ship Texas and her crew had no time to wonder what had happened, as they were too busy trying to turn the situation around. She immediately went into escort duty; guarding vital supplies, men and equipment along the Atlantic Ocean lifeline to what was left of free Europe. When the Marines embarked for the first American offensive in the Pacific at a little island called Guadalcanal, the USS Texas escorted them to the Panama Canal.
And when the United States when on the offensive against the Nazis, she participated in that also. In October of 1942, her main batteries of fourteen inch guns went into action for the first time during Operation Torch; the invasion of North Africa. A young and inexperienced news correspondent went along for the ride during Operation Torch, his name was Walter Cronkite. The journey down the long road back had begun in earnest.
For over a year the USS Texas returned to her previous assignments involving escorts and convoy duty. But in April of 1944 she made her way to the Clyde estuary in Scotland, and was given a new assignment. The Texas would participate in the largest amphibious operation in history, the Invasion of Normandy. D-Day.
In the early morning hours of June 6, 1944, the U.S. Army Second Ranger Battalion began its historic assault on enemy gun emplacements located on high ground known as Pointe Du Hoc. In support of this highly important mission, the USS Texas trained her big guns and opened fire in support of the Ranger advance scaling those cliffs to their objective. Beyond the fire missions needed there, the guns of the Texas reached far and wide along Omaha Beach, delivering tons and tons of high explosives where it was needed the most.
The day after the initial assault, the officers and crew of the USS Texas learned that the still heavily engaged Second Ranger Battalion was cut off from the main invasion force. The Rangers were low on ammunition and chow and had no way of evacuating their casualties. Proving once more that audacity and aggressiveness are the American sailor’s two best qualities, the men of the Texas secured two LCVPs and loaded them with the badly needed supplies. They made their way to shore, reprovisioned the Rangers, and evacuated American dead and wounded along with enemy POWs. Personally, I always found it fitting that a ship named after the Lone Star state would come to the aid of men with the same name as that state’s own legendary fighting force.
The battle for the liberation of France continued on, and so did the missions for the USS Texas in support of this strategic objective. Near the end of the month she became involved in a slug fest with enemy shore batteries near the town of Cherbourg. In the following hours, the Texas was straddled and near missed by enemy fire over sixty-five times. A direct hit left her with eleven casualties, one dead.
After repeated repair work and refitting, the Texas served faithfully in the Mediterranean before orders were cut for new duties in the Pacific. Following training exercises and resupply, the aging battlewagon made her way to her station off a tiny island in the Pacific known as Iwo Jima. The Marines were landing in one of the bloodiest engagements in their illustrious history, and the USS Texas was there with the firepower needed to help pave the way.
For days her fourteen inch main guns and five inch secondary batteries pounded away at the island, as well as its landmark Mount Suribachi. The volcanic island was infested with Japanese fortifications, and the USS Texas found gainful employment in the days to come in silencing those positions. The on-call fire from the Texas was a very welcome thing for the Marines fighting, bleeding and dying for every square inch of that unforgiving hunk of rock.
When the Marines raised the flag atop Suribachi, the men of the USS Texas watched it happen from offshore. She, along with other ships of the invasion force, sounded their claxions in salute of what those Marines had managed to do. It is also still said by some that you could hear the crews of those ships cheering wildly from ashore.
The war in the Pacific moved on, and so did the USS Texas. She was there for the invasion of Okinawa, shelling the island in support of the advancing American ground forces and fighting off a new weapon of the Japanese which gained wide use there; the Kamikaze. The Texas was there for nearly two months; an aging warrior from another era who fought on the best way she knew how.
When the war finally ended in August of 1945, the USS Texas was involved in one more operation. This one was special; even more so than all the others she had been involved in over her last thirty years of service. It was referred to as Operation Magic Carpet, and for this happy event not one shot was fired. The Texas was assisting in bringing our troops back home, and the world changed yet once again.
After this final mission, the old veteran was put on the reserve list at Baltimore, Maryland. There she sat, facing an uncertain future as others were hauled out to sea for atomic bomb tests, sunk by gunfire during training missions, or simply cut up and sold for scrap. She was quickly becoming the last of her kind, but in the high euphoria of peace no one seemed to really notice or care.
But somebody did care. A commission was formed by the Texas legislature and in 1948 the dreadnought was towed up the Houston ship channel to her new berthing at the historic San Jacinto battlefield. She had a new lease on life, and a new assignment. The USS Texas was to become a floating museum; a reminder of who we are and how we got to this point in our history. She would also serve as a reminder of the cost of that journey.
Generations of kids would play on her decks, clambering through her passageways and peering into every nook and cranny to be found. In the irony of the passage of time and purpose, this battlewagon from another era became one of the grandest playgrounds ever devised. Youthful imaginations and desire for high adventure was spawned in the minds of tens of thousands by that old warrior, and I was one of those who she affected in such a way. I still get that same feeling every time I visit her, even as a middle aged man with streaks of gray in my hair.
And now the year is 2012, a full one hundred years since the USS Texas was launched from the shipbuilding yard at Newport News, Virginia. A century has passed and this grand old gal is still with us, barely. She has been shot at and shot back, felt the constant pounding of heavy seas around the globe, and was home and refuge for the many officers and crew who served aboard her for decades with honor and pride. From Tampico to Iwo Jima, from Scapa Flow to the Panama Canal, from Normandy and Cherbourg to Okinawa and Leyte; the USS Texas has been there. For the past sixty-five years she has sat quietly at her berthing spot; near the battlefield proclaimed as one of the twelve most important engagements in military history. She is a national landmark, a technological marvel of her time, a sometimes movie star, and an irreplaceable state treasure. Literally, she is the last of her kind; all the others of her type have been gone for over half a century now.
But what German guns and torpedoes, and Japanese bombs and kamikazes could not do, the elements are threatening to accomplish. She has struggled in this area before, but at present the situation has reached a crisis level. On June 14th it was reported that she had sprung a massive leak and water was pouring in. The leak was stopped. However, there was not even enough time for a sigh of relief before other leaks were discovered.
Yesterday, a Houston news article stated that she was taking on 100 gallons of sea water a minute; and the back third of the dreadnought was flooded to the waterline and lying hard in the mud beneath her. Staff, workers and volunteers are working feverously to repair her as I write this.
The end result remains in doubt.