BATTLESHIP TEXAS BB-35
A visit to the Battleship Texas Museum in La Porte, Texas
by Martin J Quinn
The battleship Texas was the second of two New York-class battleships authorized by Congress in June, 1910. The pair of dreadnoughts were the first in the US Navy to carry a main armament of 14 inches. Battleship number 35 - named after the state of Texas - was laid down at the Newport News Shipbuilding Company in April 1911 and launched in May, 1912.
Shortly after commissioning in March 1914, Texas was called upon to help support US forces ashore at Vera Cruz, Mexico. It wasn't until after Vera Cruz that Texas actually began her shakedown period, conducting training and drills - a routine she continued until the United States entered World War I in April, 1917.
Texas was part of the Atlantic Fleet's Battleship force until she ran around off Block Island, Rhode Island in September, 1917. The extensive damage forced the battleship into the yard for repairs. Once the repairs were complete, she sailed for England as part of the US Navy's 6th Battle Squadron, which was attached to the Royal Navy's Grand Fleet. After avoiding a torpedo attack by a German submarine, Texas - in company with the rest of the 6th battle squadron - conducted patrols to counter any sortie by the German High Seas Fleet. In the wake of the signing of the Armistice, Texas was part of the force that escorted the German High Seas fleet into internment in Scapa Flow.
Between the wars, the Texas became the first battleship to successfully launch an aircraft, which she did in March, 1919. In 1924, her guns sank the incomplete hulk of the battleship Washington (BB-47), which had been discarded as part of the Washington Naval Treaty.
In 1925 Texas began a yard period which radically altered her appearance. In place of her "cage" masts she received new tripod masts and a new superstructure. New boilers and armor, as well as torpedo blisters, were added. She emerged from her reconstruction to become flagship of the United States Fleet. In 1928 she carried President Hoover to the Pan-American conference in Havana, Cuba.
The years leading up to America's involvement in World War II was most spent in training and then participation in the Neutrality Patrol, the highlight of which was evading a torpedo attack by U-203 in June, 1941. December 7, 1941 - and America's entry into the war - found the Texas anchored in Casco Bay, Maine.
The next two years saw Texas follow a familiar pattern - convoy escort duty and then shore bombardment duties. The first fire support mission was in support of Operation Torch, the first invasion of North Africa in November, 1942. The second mission found the Texas off the beaches of Normandy as the flagship of the bombardment force - dubbed Operation Neptune - for the invasion of Europe on June 6, 1944. While supporting Allied attempts to secure the strategic port of Cherbourg later that same month, the Texas came under fire from German shore batteries, being struck twice.
After completing her support mission, she sailed to the United States for repairs. In company of the new battleship Missouri and the old battlewagon Arkansas, Texas departed the New York Navy Yard in November, 1944, bound for the Pacific.
After training for duty against the Japanese, Texas took part in the bombardment force for the Iwo Jima and Okinawa landings, shooting down a Kamikaze while covering the landings at Okinawa. The end of hostilities found Texas conducting patrols out of San Pedro Bay in the Philippines.
As part of the "Magic Carpet" program, Texas ferried over 4,200 service men from the war zone back to the United States. At the completion of these missions, she was decommissioned and placed in reserve.
After a campaign to save her as a memorial, Texas was moved to her present position at San Jacinto State Park on April 21, 1948, where she has been moored ever since. She is the only remaining battleship from the "dreadnought" era, a living memorial to all those who have heeded the call to defend freedom.
While traveling to Houston on business recently, I scheduled my trip so I had time to visit the museum. I arrived on a warm, bright June day. The ship is moored in a special slip dredged for her arrival 55 years ago. As you follow the signs in San Jacinto Park for the ship, she suddenly appears behind a grove of trees, partially hidden by an earthen berm that runs along side the slip. What caught my attention at first is how small the ship is. Obviously, any ship that's almost 600 feet long isn't "small", but compared to an Iowa class battleship or an Essex-class aircraft carrier, she is small. After going through the gift shop/visitors center to get your tickets and brochure, you walk to the stern of the ship and enter via a ramp that brings you onboard by the aft turrets.
I was worried that I was going to have to rush though the museum, since I only had two hours before I had to head for the airport to catch my flight home. I was surprised that it only took me around 90 minutes to see the entire ship, from engine room to flag bridge.
The ship looks as she did in 1945 when providing fire support in the Pacific. She is painted in Measure 21 - overall Navy Blue. The ship is in good condition, though in need of a paint job. While there are arrows onboard to "guide" you on your tour, I mostly wandered around the ship. I started at the main deck and worked my way up the bridge - with it's very narrow stairs - up to the flag bridge. Unfortunately, none of the interior rooms on the bridge are open, and you can't get up to the spotting top.
Working my way down, I went below decks all the way down to the engine room. Along the way there are displays of shipboard life in 1945 - an officer's stateroom, the post office, the dispensary, the laundry. I was surprised how small and dingy the engine room was. Compared to the engine room at the USS Hornet museum, the engine room of the Texas looked like an antique.
I love visiting warship museums. Anytime I have the opportunity to see one, I will. I've been to Intrepid, Yorktown, Hornet, Missouri, Wisconsin, Olympia, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Belfast, among others (Belfast was my favorite). I've seen great museums and I've seen not so great museums. Some - like the Intrepid - are chock full of displays, models, and artifacts. Some - like the Texas - are not.
I applaud the men and women who volunteer their time and efforts to keep the Big "T" open, running and accessible. I know from my IPMS chapter's long association with both the Intrepid and New Jersey museums that running a warship museum is hard work where funding is hard to come by. I know Texas is gearing up for another dry-dock period, which will be quite costly.
When it came to the Battleship Texas museum, frankly, I was disappointed. Don't get me wrong, I'm glad the Texas was preserved - she is only one of her kind left in the world. Think of all the great ships (Enterprise, King George V, San Francisco) that could and should have been preserved but were not. Grateful as I am, I didn't expect her to be so barren of artifacts or displays. For a museum that's been in place for 55 years, I expected something more substantial. I expected to be able to go into the pilot house, I expected to see more exhibits and displays (there wasn't one model on board). The USS Hornet has been a museum ship for only a few years, but she - even with financial difficulty - not only had displays but Docents doing tours.
Maybe I'm spoiled by having the Intrepid and her wealth of artifacts, models and displays right across the Hudson River in Manhattan. Also, I know nothing of the local and state politics that may surround the ship. Maybe she is barren for a reason. What ever the reason, it's a shame. In my opinion, there should be better and more displays - the wardroom comes to mind as a room that cries out for something - better tour information and maybe even guided tours.
Still, if you are in the Houston, Texas area and have some free time, take a ride out to the San Jacinto Battlefield in La Porte. It's only about 30 easy minutes from downtown and worth the ride just to see and support the ship that was billed as "the most powerful warship in the world" when launched, the USS Texas. My perceived shortcomings aside, it was well worth the visit.
Derek Brown's USS Texas
USS Texas Website
National Park Service information on USS Texas
US Naval Historical Center's Pictorial on the USS Texas
The Unofficial USS Texas Website