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History That Floats

Originally commissioned in 1914, the battle-hardened USS Texas rests peacefully now — but still has many stories to tell.

By Tom Behrens

“This ship is a microcosm of the United States from 1908, when it was designed, to 1948, when it came here,” says Barry Ward, museum curator for the Battleship Texas. “Everything that happened, or was happening in our country in that first half century, is reflected by this ship. There were anywhere from 800 to 1,600 men living aboard this ship at any given time, and those men are a reflection of our culture, how they lived, where they were from, what they did and where they went after leaving this ship.”

More obvious is the technological arc that can be traced through the ship. When the USS Texas was commissioned on March 12, 1914, it was the most formidable ship on the planet. To this day, visitors are awestruck by the ship’s size. Now permanently anchored on Buffalo Bayou along the busy Houston Ship Channel, the ship is two football fields (573 feet) long, 16 stories high and has five levels, or decks.

The Texas has the last 14-inch guns in existence, and five gun turrets in total. Visitors can climb up inside a turret and see the breech mechanism, the shells the powder bags and observe how the gun was loaded.

“You are looking at a shell that weighs about as much as a Volkswagen Beetle,” says Ward in describing the missile that was launched from the 14-inch guns.

The maximum range of the gun, as it was configured in World War I, was about 14 miles, and it left a crater the size of a tennis court. A gun’s range is determined by how far the barrel can be elevated. You can elevate this gun to only about 15 degrees.

By 1942, with the advent of spotter planes and radar, it was no longer safe for the ship to sail within 14 miles of an enemy position. Increasing the range of the guns would have required a modification to the construction of the turrets, which was not feasible at the time.

“One of the interesting things they did to enable them to shell Nazi positions off the coast of southern France, was to counter- flood the ship about two degrees — pumping fuel and water over to one side so it gave the ship a list,” says Ward. “That gave them a couple extra miles so they could engage deeper inland targets.”

In 1916, the Texas became the first U.S. battleship to mount antiaircraft guns. At the end of World War II there were almost 100 guns of different sorts on board, including .20 and .40 mm antiaircraft guns. The .20 mm was a short-range weapon; the .40 mm range stretched out to about 5,000 yards and was the first gun controlled with “directors” and “range-keepers,” analog forerunners of today’s computers.

“Battleships were not easily hit by aircraft fire,” says Ward. “There were only two battleships in World War II hit by large caliber enemy shells, the Texas and the South Dakota. Only one seaman was killed and 12 injured during the war [on the USS Texas]. Kamikazes were a more likely threat, but battleships were not their favorite targets. They went after ships with fewer guns.”

In 1919, the USS Texas became the first U.S. battleship to launch an aircraft. The mission of the aircraft was to act as a forward fire controller. “The interesting part of the launching of aircraft was not the launch, but retrieving the plane after the mission was over,” says Ward.

“The plane lands in the water, they swing the crane out and lower what they call a sea sled, a canvas netting. The pilot motors the plane over on to the sea sled. When the plane is right over it, a signal is given from the ship and the pilot cuts power. The pontoon pitches downward and is snagged by the hook on the sea sled. Now the plane is being towed. The man in the back seat crawls out over the wing and the pilot reaches out and grabs hold of his legs. Then he [the man on the wing] grabs the second hook from the crane and hooks it to the plane. The plane is lifted up out of the water. There were a lot of guys alongside the ship with long padded poles to help keep the airplane from bumping or crashing into the side of the ship as it was brought on board. It was like watching a train wreck. You didn’t want to see it, but if it did happen you wanted to see it.”

In 1925, the USS Texas underwent major modifications. It was converted to oil-fired boilers, tripod masts and a single stack were added to the main deck. Then, the 5-inch guns that bristled from her sides were reduced in number and moved to the main deck to minimize problems with heavy weather and high seas. It is interesting to note that the 5-inch guns, although modern versions, are throwbacks to the age of wooden ships when cannons would be wheeled out and fired from the sides of the frigates.

The engines were very similar to those on the HMS Titanic, the last significant example of large triple-expansion engines around. The engines are now a National Mechanical Engineering Landmark.

“This was originally a coal-burning ship,” says Ward, “then changed to oil-fired. Rather than this being a steam turbine engine like most ships, the steam is pumped directly into the cylinder, which expands and drives the piston. It is called triple expansion because it expands at three levels, high, medium and low pressure. When you go to visit our engines, you are actually below the water line, although you would not know that.”

In addition to the ship’s offensive and defensive capabilities, the Texas was a home to the sailors who served on board. The medical facilities, barbershop, machine shop, electrical shop, post office and bunking areas are all available for visitors to tour.

Medical facilities included an operating room and a dental suite. “They had an X-ray machine, a centrifuge for blood work, an autoclave to sterilize equipment and anesthesia,” says Ward. “In short, if you had something like acute appendicitis, it was survivable. Even in World War I, acute appendicitis was survivable because you had the ability to operate. In 1895 if your appendix broke and you were in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, you were dead.”

Electricity fired the ranges in the galley. Open flames on a ship were a bad thing for a number of reasons. “In a previous design generation, ships used wood to cook with. Paint at this point in time was highly flammable — lead-based. If you have your galley and an open flame down below deck and fire gets loose, you are going to have a fire racing up through the structure of the ship.”

Other interesting World War II add-ons include the cage structures above the galley. With everything else the ship had to carry, there wasn’t enough room for lifeboats for everyone. The topless cages contained large nets with cork floats attached to them. If the ship was sinking, the nets would float out and sailors could grab onto the nets.

The USS Texas continues to be a visitor favorite for thousands of people every year, from school children to Navy veterans. Maintenance of the aging ship is a work in progress. During 1988-90 the Texas underwent dry-dock overhaul. Instead of peacetime gray, the ship was painted Measure 21 blue camouflage, which it wore during service in the Pacific in 1945. Steel plating that had been previously removed by the Navy was replaced. Masts and superstructure of the ship were repaired, a non-historic layer of concrete was removed and a new wood deck was installed.

The Texas is due for another renovation this year, providing the Texas Legislature approves funding and a suitable dry-dock facility can be located.

Details:

The Battleship Texas is part of the San Jacinto Battleground and Battleship Texas State Historic Site. There is no cost for admission to the park, but there is a $7 cost for adult admission to the battleship. Senior adults are $4; children 13 and over, $7; and children 12 and under, free. The ship is open 7 days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Visitors can tour the ship at their own pace or tour guides are available on weekends. Special “hard hat” tours are available by reservation only; visitors tour areas on the ship not accessible to the general public. Length of the tour is 3 to 4 hours. Cost is $30. Special educational programs are available for Boy Scouts and similar organizations. Members will spend a night on the ship. For more information, call the park at (281) 479-2431 or visit the park Web site: www.tpwd. state.tx.us/park/battlesh/

The park is located at 3523 Battleground Road (Texas Highway 134) in LaPorte.

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