What shall we do with a drunken sailor? Put him in a longboat till he’s sober, of course. Everyone knows that. But what do you do with a 107-year-old elephant that is falling apart? Fix it up (again) and move it some place where more tourists will pay to visit it? Actually, Houston and Texas have two white elephants. One is the Astrodome, which costs millions of dollars to maintain, even though inspectors have ruled the structure unsafe. The other elephant is the battleship USS Texas. It is a glorious ship with a marvelous history. But the old warhorse is falling apart in saltwater.
Let’s take the Astrodome first. Many plans have been hatched with no way to pay for them. I have a solution: turn the Astrodome into a casino. That will pay for its upkeep and generate millions for the Texas Legislature to spend on something or other. That problem solved, we turn to the Texas. It was America’s first battleship, launched May 18, 1912, although on paper the USS Indiana was the first, but that’s our claim and we’re sticking to it.
The Texas was huge, for its time, sprouting massive guns and three small floatplanes, with a crew of 1,042 (later increased to 1,820). A $5,830,000 contract was the bid price, excluding the price of armor and armament. It was the first U.S. battleship to mount anti-aircraft guns, the first U.S. warship to control gunfire with directors and range-keepers, the first U.S. battleship to launch an aircraft. The Texas is the first U.S. battleship to become a permanent museum ship, and the first battleship declared to be a U.S. National Historic Landmark. It is the only remaining World War I-era dreadnought battleship, although the Mikasa, a pre-dreadnought battleship ordered in 1898 by the Imperial Japanese Navy is older. The Texas is also one of only seven remaining ships and the only remaining capital ship to have served in both World Wars.
She may also be the first U.S. battleship to run aground. On 27 Sept. 1917, in Long Island Sound, the Texas made a turn at the wrong time and ran up on an island from the bow all the way beyond midships. For three days her crew lightened the ship to no avail. Tugs came to her assistance, and she finally backed clear. Hull damage dictated a return to the yard, and extensive repairs. She bolstered U.S. forces off Vera Cruz during a little-known spat with Mexico, fought in World War I then sailed the high seas. While visiting Galveston in 1914, Texas Gov. Oscar Colquitt presented the ship’s silver service to the captain. The Young Men’s Business League of Waco raised $10,000 to purchase the silver. I have no idea what happened to it.
Between the wars the Texas floated around the world, got updated – coal was replaced by oil as fuel. In 1927, Texas set another first with the showing of “talking” pictures for crew entertainment. In turn, the Texas has appeared in several films going back to1937. For the 1966 movie, The Sand Pebbles, some scenes were shot aboard the ship, but these were removed from the final cut of the movie and subsequently lost. The Texas also appears as herself in the 2006 films Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima. In the 2001 film Pearl Harbor, Texas stood in for various battleships including some interior scenes for ships that were attacked on Dec. 7, 1941. Actually, on the date that will in infamy, the Texas was manning the ramparts in Casco Bay, Maine. Ever vigilant, the crew was taking R&R. But our gal soon got into action, first in the invasion of North Africa, Operation Torch. During that invasion, a young reporter was on board the Texas. After the battle, on the return trip home, when the U.S. was within flying distance, the reporter was launched off Texas in a small aircraft — thus beating a rival reporter — to issue the first uncensored news reports about Operation Torch. The young reporter was Walter Cronkite, who was never heard of again, but we might say that the Texas launched his career.
Later, the Texas was blasting away at Normandy. Among other targets, she fired upon snipers and machine gun nests hidden just off the beach. We can only imagine the impact of some of the world’s largest guns destroying small pockets of infantry. There is poor Sniper Pvt. Hans, picking off Allied troops until the last thing he sees is a one-ton bullet headed towards him. By June 15, 1944, allied troops had advanced to the edge of Texas’s gun range. To get the needed range, the starboard part of the ship was flooded which gave the guns enough elevation. Next came southern France, then on to the Pacific, pounding Japanese positions from Guadalcanal to Iwo Jima to Okinawa.
The ship was decommissioned in 1948, and on that April 21 (San Jacinto Day) under tow, she arrived at the San Jacinto Battleground where, except for two years in Galveston for repairs in the late 1990s, she has been moored, falling apart. About 80,000 paid visitors per year visit the ship, generating about $1.2 million in revenue, but that’s not enough for constant upkeep. A bill was passed in the last session of the Texas Legislature to tow the Texas to an Alabama shipyard, fix her up, and place her in a more tourist-friendly place, probably Galveston. If the ship is moved, how can we explain to tourists that her big guns turned the tide at the Battle of San Jacinto? But we can still note that our snipers in the top of the monument raked deadly fire on the enemy. And she needs to get out of the salt water and on dry land. My earlier suggestion that we turn the Astrodome into a casino needs a change. We put the Texas in the Astrodome. Kill two white elephants with one dome.
Ashby sails at email@example.com