USS Texas – Last of Its Kind
USS Texas on March 24, 1914. The dreadnought would see action in both world wars, but today leaks are threatening it in the Port of Houston. Bain News Service; George Grantham Bain Collection, Library of Congress.
"By demonstrating the fighting spirit of Texas to our enemies in two world wars, this gallant ship has proved worthy of her name. Neither the Germans at Normandy, nor the Japanese at Okinawa, will ever forget the weight of the guns, nor the courage of the crew of Texas."—Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, April 21, 1948
Standing watch over the Port of Houston, the USS Texas (BB-35) is the world’s last surviving dreadnought. Launched in 1912 and commissioned in 1914, she is the only remaining US naval vessel and one of just six surviving ships to have served in both world wars. Texas sailors, seconded to the SS Magnolia, fired the US Navy’s first shots during WWI. Texas was the first US battleship to launch aircraft, and ironically, the first fitted with antiaircraft guns. She was the first US ship to mount range finders and directors for long-distance naval gunfire. The US Marines founded their famed First Division on the battleship’s decks. She was the only US vessel to fight in the African, European and Pacific theaters, but amazingly suffered casualties on just one occasion, during the shelling of Cherbourg, when a German artillery shell killed one sailor and wounded ten others. The first US battleship designated a museum ship and a US National Historic Landmark, today, the USS Texas is a lasting monument to the thousands of men who proudly called her home in war and peace.
The Tampico Affair
Although perhaps not as well known as other military ships of the 20th century, the USS Texas played a critical role as an instrument of US foreign policy for over 30 years. Shortly after her commissioning, The ship became embroiled in the "Tampico Affair" during the Mexican Revolution when an apparent misunderstanding between Mexican soldiers and US sailors quickly escalated into a major diplomatic row. US Navy warships, under the command of Rear Admiral Henry Mayo, patrolled the waters off the Mexican Atlantic coast near Veracruz to protect American citizens and oil companies. The United States government ordered the deployment, given the potential for combat between President Victorio Huerta’s soldiers and Emiliano Zapata’s rebel forces. During this tense period, American sailors landed at a warehouse to replenish fuel stocks consumed by boats running messages to and from the fleet. Mexican soldiers holding a defensive position near the warehouse approached and, unable to communicate, detained the sailors. An apology from Huerta’s government did not meet US demands and President Woodrow Wilson ordered the occupation of Veracruz. Mayo requested, and received, additional naval forces including the newly commissioned Texas. Although she saw no combat in Mexico, the crew likely made the most of the opportunity to train—war clouds were gathering over Europe.
The Great War
World War I saw Texas performing convoy duties and patrolling the North Sea with her British cousins against Imperial Germany’s High Seas Fleet in a vain attempt to bring Mahan’s theories to fruition. (Alfred Thayer Mahan’s theories that sea power was the primary element for strong foreign policy led to the rapid buildup of navies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.) Even with America’s late entry into the Great War, Texas was still able to play an important role escorting surrendered German vessels to Scapa Flow, Scotland, after their surrender in 1918. Between world wars, the United States signed the Washington Naval Arms Limitation treaty that drastically limited new battleship production. As a result, the US Navy chose to modernize Texas to burn oil instead of coal, replaced her cage mast with the more familiar tripod mount, and updated her weapons and armor. Following this refit, she was designated as the flagship of the US Navy’s American Fleet in 1927, an honor she held until 1931.
Stalked by U-203
During the interwar years Texas conducted routine patrols in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, as well as serving as a training ground for Naval Academy midshipmen. The crew tested new equipment and war-fighting tactics including ship-borne radar and spotter planes. In an era before air travel was commonplace, Texas occasionally transported or escorted VIP delegations. Her most famous passenger was President Calvin Coolidge, who sailed on Texas to Havana for the 1928 Pan-American Conference. As the world marched inexorably towards war during the 1930s, Texas participated in so-called "Neutrality Patrols" in the North Atlantic, escorting convoys halfway from the United States to Great Britain. On at least one occasion, a German Kriegsmarine U-boat (U-203) unsuccessfully stalked the battleship, finding the old dreadnought simply too fast to hunt. This incident occurred in June 1941, five months before America formally entered the war, which poses an interesting "what if": Historical records clearly show other, arguably smaller, combat actions between America and Nazi Germany – such as the submarine sinking of the destroyer USS Reuben James – were insufficient casus belli. However, would the loss of a major US capital ship have provided President Roosevelt sufficient cause to ask Congress for a declaration of war?
World War II—Action in Three Theaters
With America’s entry into WWII, Texas participated in several major actions and holds a unique position as the only US ship to serve in the North African, European and Pacific theaters. Although rendered obsolete by newer battlewagons, Texas‘ 14-inch main guns were still quite capable of providing much-needed support to amphibious attacks. Covering Operation Torch in Morocco was Texas‘ first opportunity to fire her guns in anger, albeit in more limited role than she would experience in later assaults. Her main batteries fired over 250 shells at French troop concentrations and ammunition dumps. In what must have been a singular encounter, Texas‘ spotter plane reportedly attacked French Army tanks with a depth charge. One can only imagine the hilarity and antics in the officer’s wardroom as the pilot relayed that tale to his fellow sailors.
The battleship returned to convoy duty throughout 1943 and would not see combat again until the Allied invasion of Europe on D-Day. In late April, Texas relocated from Norfolk, Virginia, to Belfast, Northern Ireland, for final modifications and pre-deployment training with both the Royal Navy and Royal Air Force. Mission planners assigned Texas to cover the American landings on Omaha Beach in support of the 1st and 29th Infantry Divisions as well as the 2nd and 5th Ranger Battalions. German resistance at Omaha was particularly strong and their artillery began a running duel with the offshore battlewagons. Texas rose to the challenge, closing to less than 3,000 yards from the beach, lowering her guns to near horizontal elevations and firing some 1,000 14- and 5-inch shells. She was joined in shelling the German positions by USS Arkansas and a group of destroyers that closed to dangerously close range. The 1st Infantry Division’s post-battle account spoke directly to the ships’ valor saying, "Without that gunfire, we positively could not have crossed the beaches." Texas remained on station until advancing Allied units moved outside the range of her guns. Following a quick return to England to repair battle damage, she sailed to southern France as part of Operation Dragoon. Compared to Omaha Beach, German resistance was far lighter and Texas’ presence lasted just two days before the rapid Allied drive inland left her protective umbrella of steel.
With her work in the European theater complete, Texas was destined to play a role in the closing chapters of WWII. Following a lengthy refit and training in the waters off Hawaii, she sailed to support the Marine’s iconic landing on Iwo Jima. Although Texas was by now an experienced veteran of amphibious operations, Iwo Jima marked the first occasion the ship would conduct a sustained bombardment in advance of the landing. Her guns shelled the Japanese-held island for three days before the Marines disembarked from their transports and hit the beaches. Once ashore, the Marines called on the battleship to provide continued fire as they advanced against stubborn Japanese defenders. Texas departed Iwo before the island was declared secure, but her guns were not quiet long. She immediately sailed to Okinawa in what would be her final combat action. Texas delivered preparatory fires for six days and on-call fire support for a further two months.
At the war’s conclusion, Texas‘ last mission was to carry home some 5,000 GIs under Operation Magic Carpet—a fitting conclusion to her lengthy career. With her advanced age, and the ascendancy of aircraft carriers over battleships, the Navy designated Texas for inactivation with the mothball fleet in Baltimore, Maryland in 1946. Her retirement was to be short lived, however, as Texas governor Coke Stevenson led a statewide campaign that successfully saved her from the scrap yard. In 1948, Texas arrived at her permanent home in the Houston suburb of La Porte.
Visiting USS Texas Today
The battleship is located a short 30-minute drive from downtown Houston and is co-located with the Battle of San Jacinto Battleground Memorial. Visitors may take a self-guided tour through several key areas including the Admiral’s bridge, weather deck, officers’ mess, medical facilities, galley, gun turrets and engine room. Museum volunteer staff members and informative plaques explain the various aspects of the vessel, provide historical vignettes or simply describe life on a battleship. Several of the exhibits include period equipment and uniforms used throughout Texas’ long career, including her beautiful silver set, a gift from Waco businessmen in 1914. For those truly interested in exploring the ship, the museum offers "hard hat tours" in areas normally restricted. The museum is open year ’round from 10 am to 5 pm. Organized youth clubs, such as the Boy Scouts, may also arrange for overnight stays.
Texas‘ guns are silent now, but she stands eternal watch over the birthplace of her namesake. For more information, please visit the USS Texas Historic Site Website at http://www.tpwd.state.tx.us/state-parks/battleship-texas.
(Editor’s note—As we were preparing to publish this article on ArmchairGeneral.com, the author alerted us to the unfortunate news that USS Texas has sprung several leaks and its museum has been closed indefinitely until the problems can be solved. The ship’s Website, however, says it will reopen July 7.)
The opinions expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not reflect those of the United States Government, the Department of Defense, or the United States Army.
About the Author
Christopher J. Heatherly is an amateur historian and active duty U.S. Army military intelligence officer with deployments to Afghanistan, Iraq, Nigeria and Mali.