The Battleship Texas

In our fast-paced-disposable culture, one often wonders, what’s worth saving?

In Texas you don’t have to ponder this question very long before a list begins to emerge. Texans have always cherished their history and many today are actively involved in making sure the past is not forgotten. Case in point is the Battleship Texas.

In the course of its existence when it seemed the ship was destined to be scraped, Texans always stepped in to save it. What makes this ship so special?

The Battleship Texas is the only one of its kind still in existence, the last of the world’s dreadnoughts and when she was commissioned in 1914, the Texas was the most powerful battleship in the world! And now she is the only surviving U.S. naval ship that has served in both World War I and II. Quite a resume!

Researching the headlines of the past it becomes evident that this giant dreadnought, with its mighty guns was built to be as the Richmond Times Dispatch proclaimed, “The World’s Greatest Battleship...” There would be other dreadnoughts named for U.S. states but the Texas was launched first and sparked the imagination of the entire country.

Built by the Newport News Shipbuilding and Dry Dock Company, the keel was laid April 17, 1911. Then about a year later on May 18, 1912, the ship was formerly launched and what a launch it was!

Many Texans were present, including a young girl, named Miss Claudia Lyon. She was the daughter of Cecil Lyon, a wealthy rancher from Sherman, Texas. Miss Claudia’s role was to christen the ship. After being initiated in the art of hurling the bottle of champagne against the bow, she was ready to do the honors and name the ship for the Lone Star State. Her photograph would appear on the front page of major newspapers throughout the country, her bouquet of flowers larger than she, with headlines such as the one in the San Francisco Call, “Ranchman’s Daughter to Christen Warship.” (April 20, 1912)

Soon articles appeared comparing this new Texas with the old one “which was launched in 1892, and which after having been renamed the San Marcus was shot to pieces and sunk in gun practice...” (Bismarck Daily Tribune, May 18, 1912)

Finally on March 12, 1914, the dreadnought Texas was commissioned and once again headlines of the day would herald this big gun battleship as “One of the Most Deadly Engines of Destruction Afloat…” (New York Tribune) The country was filled with pride and patriotism as the United States became a power to be reckoned with.

But this great ship saw a bit of trouble early on.

“…The Battleship Texas, pride of the United States Navy, was surrounded and raided while at her pier April 7, 1914, in the New York Navy Yard, The attacking party, two hundred and fifty Boy Scouts from Manhattan and Staten Island…The boys climbed the long gang plank and in an instant the battleship was theirs. They climbed to the tops of the basketwork masts, examined the instruments on the bridge, looked through the Captain’s telescope…and after having the time of their lives, all left vowing if they were not Boy Scouts they would be sailors…” (New York Tribune, Tues. April 7, 1914)

Young people everywhere especially in Texas, were enamored with the battleship, as illustrated in a November 8, 1914, headline which read, “School Children Galore at Presentation in Galveston…A silver service made by Gorham Company was presented to the Battleship Texas by the people of Texas. There are 68 pieces of which the punch set is the most prominent. The complete service is composed of the silver service which had belonged to the first Texas (the San Marcus). Then an additional 28 pieces were added; with school children contributing funds to make the service complete. All plates are decorated with the lone star and laurel—emblematic of victory…”

During World War I, the Texas served as part of the Battleship Force of the Atlantic Fleet and participated in maneuvers in the North Sea against threats from the Germans. But the Battleship Texas saw no combat action, although she did flex her muscles and present a mighty show of force when necessary. Example: a 12 page special edition of the Omaha Daily Bee, dated April 21, 1914, illustrated the tension with Vera Cruz, Mexico. The headline above a photo of the Texas read, “Inspection on board the Battleship Texas before It Sailed for Mexican Waters.” The story highlighted the urgency of the situation. “…Ready for service any minute. The entire force of state militia stationed in Omaha could be ready for Mexico within 6 hours if the word is given…”

After World War I was over and Armistice was declared on November 11, 1918, the Texas sailed with the Grand Fleet escorting the German fleet to Scotland for surrender.

In 1925, major modifications were made to the battleship. For example, old coal-fired boilers were replaced by modern oil-fired ones, stronger tripod masts replaced the original cage masts, and torpedo blisters were added. For the next 12 years, the ship steamed the Atlantic and Pacific once again projecting American naval power.

But the Battleship Texas was aging and during World War II necessary updates included the addition of radar and new anti-aircraft batteries. The Texas saw action in the Normandy Invasion; spending most of June 1944, providing gun support for soldiers at Omaha Beach and served as a hospital ship for wounded soldiers. The Texas was at the landing of Iwo Jima and also took part in the largest amphibious assault of the Pacific theater--the invasion of Okinawa, where for six weeks she successfully bombarded the coast.

At the end of World War II, the Battleship Texas would be filled with joy as she made three voyages from Pearl Harbor to California bringing nearly 5,000 troops home from the Pacific.

The Texas was then retired to Hawkins Point, Baltimore, where she stayed from June 1946 to January 1948, when once again school children played a part in its history. The Texas was scheduled to be used as a bombing target but a successful statewide fund drive saved her.

In Sept. 1945, the Texas appeared on a U.S. House Naval Affairs Committee list of outdated ships slated for decommissioning, target practice, or the scrap yard. Two Texas congressmen, Lyndon B. Johnson and Albert Thomas began a campaign to save the ship as a memorial to those who had served on board. The ship was offered to the state of Texas, but Gov. Coke Stevenson stated there was no money for the project. A major fundraising effort was launched which included a radio broadcast featuring Admiral Chester Nimitz and actress Linda Darnell among others, who told the story of the Texas and asked for donations. Local Jaycee Clubs visited area schools to encourage small donations, hoping for 100% participation from school children. (Abbie Salyers, USS Texas: the Restoration of Houston’s Greatest War Hero, 2006)

Texas Senator Robert Nichols’ connection to the battleship began in elementary school, when he recalled at a very early age putting money in the collection to help save the Texas.

According to the Senator, “…Every classroom had a little wicker basket... if you had a penny or nickel or dime—nobody had quarters back in those days—you’d drop your money in the basket and know you helped save the Battleship Texas…I recall as a small child, putting some small coinage in…” he said with a laugh.

After sufficient funds were raised, agreements were made and the U.S. Navy towed the battleship to Texas where she became the nation’s first permeant memorial battleship.In 1948, the Battleship Texas was officially transferred to the state in ceremonies held at the San Jacinto Battleground on April 21st—the 112th Anniversary of the Battle of Jacinto.

Nichols remembered, ““We lived in Pasadena, near the Ship Channel. My Mom would take us (six kids) out …the San Jacinto Battle ground was a place we liked to visit…and we always liked to tour the battleship…would crawl all over that thing...”

And that’s where the ship stayed except for a period in 1988, when it was moved to Galveston for dry dock repairs. However, current plans now dictate another move.

Senator Nichols’ role regarding the Battleship Texas began about six years ago, when in the Senate Finance committee the issue of funding arose. Nichols was an internal part of the discussion.

He shared, “…It had been rusting for a good while and it was taking on a lot of water. Parks and Wildlife had requested $25 million to do underwater welding and hopefully put plates over the worst spots in the hull… $25 million is a lot of money especially on something that the legislature had already spent millions on in previous decades. So the real question six years ago--is this the end of it? And the answer was, ‘No’…another question was--is $25 million enough, the answer was, ‘probably not’…so we took a vote. It was mixed, but strongly in favor of saving the battleship. So we appropriated the $25 million. As the engineers got into the ship they realized there were other things that were damaged. One was the big engines, which are larger than houses and are hanging from brackets that were rusty and close to rusting through and if the brackets broke, the engines would drop and go through the hull. So the money was redirected from repairing the hull to repairing the brackets…”

Then as the current senate session approached, Jane Nelson, Chair of the Senate Finance Committee, asked Parks and Wildlife for options regarding the battleship and costs for each. Option One: Scrap the battleship ($30 million); Option Two: Dry Dock it where it is now ($100 million). Nichols was appointed head of a working group, which included three other senators: Lois Kolkhorst, Paul Bettencourt and Brian Birdwell. They were charged with studying the options regarding the future of this historic piece of our past.

Senator Nichols elaborated, “The costs for both options were incredibly high, especially Option 2. The reason: there are no salvage or dry dock yards left in the State of Texas, so one would have to be built on site. We said, ‘No way’. Then the Battleship Texas Foundation heard of our efforts and began working with off-shore engineers and came up with a Third Option: Fix the ship up enough to tow it out to deep water—the Gulf of Mexico--once it’s there, your options increase. Off-shore companies have what they refer to as ‘big ships’. I think the Battleship Texas is big, 600 ft. long, but these ships are 1,200 to 1,500 ft. long and wide enough you can pick up the Texas with a crane that you’ve attached to the bottom of the Gulf and sit it on a big ship. Now, you can take it anywhere on the globe…There are shipyards in the U.S. who are very excited about having the opportunity to work on the Texas… Then the Foundation used a half million of their own dollars to get the engineers to run the numbers and actually start to get prices from all these places and it looks like, for $35 million we can move to dry dock somewhere, put on a new hull and maybe re-do the top deck and do it in the United States… ”

Senator Nichols concluded by saying, “So when they tell you, we don’t know where it’s going to be repaired and we don’t know where it’s going to end up; that’s technically correct because that commitment has not been made. There are still some options out there; many “high tourist” areas along the Texas coast are very interested in getting the Texas to come to them after repairs are made…”

My impressions after visiting with the senator include these: preserving our history is vitally important; we don’t want to forget. And if we want to teach future generations the stories of our past, we need artifacts such as the Battleship Texas.

According to Nichols, “You can look at pictures all day long, watch videos, etc.… but there’s nothing like putting your feet on the deck of a huge battleship like the Texas…children who want to experience history need an opportunity to see something like this, because once it’s gone; its will never be replaced.”

Maintaining the Battleship Texas will require a lot of work and a lot of money. It will not be cheap but given the part the Texas played in the fight for freedom, not only our nation’s freedom, but the world’s as well…I say the price is right.

(Note: If you have stories to share about the Battleship Texas or photos and stories of Veterans from all branches of service, contact Deborah Burkett 903-752-7850 or email debbietroup7@yahoo.com or contact Julianna Sanford, 903-810-0303 at Lone Star Military Resource Group or call Jacksonville Public Library Director Trina Stidham 903-586-7664.)

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