A Veteran of Two World Wars: 7 Fascinating Facts about the USS Texas
A Veteran of Two World Wars: 7 Fascinating Facts about the USS Texas

A Veteran of Two World Wars: 7 Fascinating Facts about the USS Texas

Robert Ranstadler - July 18, 2017

In the history of the United States Navy, few ships can match the remarkable reputation and achievements of the USS Texas (BB-35). Commissioned in 1914, she is one of a few surviving battleships to surpass the century mark. Only a handful of naval vessels can boast similar claims, including Japan’s Mikasa and England’s HMS Victory. Unlike that pair of vessels, however, the USS Texas remained on active service through the Second World War. What follows is a brief list of accomplishments that highlight the extraordinary character of the USS Texas, a remarkable ship unlike any other in the U.S. Navy.

The Last of the Dreadnoughts

Inspired by the British Royal Navy’s HMS Dreadnought, which was launched in 1906, the USS Texas belonged to an entirely new class of battleship—one which projected naval power via its incredible steam-powered screws and thunderous batteries of large-bore guns. The HMS Dreadnought was so massive, in both scale and power, she ignited an incredible arms race between the great naval powers of the early twentieth-century. Dreadnoughts quickly became symbols of national sovereignty and strength, changing the very nature of naval warfare in the virtual blink of an eye. The United States quickly entered this foray, launching its South Carolina and Delaware-class of battleships within a few short years.

A Veteran of Two World Wars: 7 Fascinating Facts about the USS Texas
HMS Dreadnought (c. 1906). historyofwar.org

While these new U.S. battleships easily outperformed earlier pre-dreadnought warships, they were not without limitations. The USS South Carolina (BB-26) and the USS Michigan (BB-27), launched during the first decade of the twentieth-century, represented America’s first generation of dreadnoughts. Congressional and budgetary constraints restricted the size of these ships to 16,000 long tons, a much smaller displacement than other nations’ battleships, which typically exceeded 18,000 long tons. Even more concerning was the speed and armament of these early American vessels, both of which were outclassed by the HMS Dreadnought.

The second generation of American dreadnoughts, the Delaware-class battleships, corrected several design oversights, including previous displacement limitations imposed by Congress. The USS Delaware (BB-28), launched in 1909, was the first U.S. warship to exceed 20,000 long tons while also matching the speed and firepower of the British dreadnoughts. Subsequent classes of American dreadnoughts improved upon previous designs, with the New York-class of battleships featuring displacements exceeding 27,000 long tons, improved firepower, and thicker armor. Preceded by the Wyoming-class of battleships, the USS New York (BB-34) and the USS Texas (BB-35) represented the pinnacle of American naval power, both being launched in 1912.

A Veteran of Two World Wars: 7 Fascinating Facts about the USS Texas
USS Texas (c. 1915). Texas Parks & Wildlife Department

For the most part, the dreadnought-generation of battleships eventually fell into disuse. Like the vessels before them, dreadnoughts were soon outclassed by even larger and more heavily-armed warships, called the “super-dreadnoughts.” The Washington Naval Treaty of 1922 additionally and ostensibly called for the mutual decommissioning or scraping of dreadnoughts between the major naval powers of the period. Ulterior motives and political incentives aside, many battleships were scuttled or otherwise removed from service to meet this requirement. The USS Texas avoided the chopping block, however, and remains the world’s only surviving World War I-era dreadnought.

A Veteran of Two World Wars: 7 Fascinating Facts about the USS Texas
SECNAV C. F. Adams tours the USS Texas, 1931. U.S. Naval Historical Foundation

A Veteran of Two World Wars

Capital ships are vessels that outsize and outclass most other boats in a typical navy and require an incredible investment of time, money, and manpower. Producing vessels of such size places a tremendous burden on national economies, with their continued upkeep under constant fiscal, political, and public scrutiny. Thus, some capital ships are incredibly powerful platforms, but of limited relative service to their respective nations. First rate ships of the line, during the Age of Sail, nonetheless started an escalation in naval power that culminated in the battleships and battlecruisers of the mid twentieth-century. Very few of these vessels survive today.

In addition to being one of the oldest surviving battleships in existence, the USS Texas is the only capital ship to have served in both world wars. During the spring of 1917, the Texas fired some of the first American shots of WWI. With the threat of unrestricted submarine warfare looming on the horizon, the USS Texas was assigned to a variety of training, patrol, and escort missions along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. The crew of the merchant ship SS Magnolia spotted a German U-boat on April 19 and the Texas intercepted the vessel, preventing the destruction of the Magnolia.

A Veteran of Two World Wars: 7 Fascinating Facts about the USS Texas
The “Big Four” of the Paris Peace Conference, 1919. Pinterest

The Texas spent the remainder of her WWI service with the Grand Fleet, traveling across the Atlantic Ocean and patrolling the North Sea, while reinforcing convoys between Scapa Flow and Firth of Forth, Scotland. Although she fired few shots for the remainder of the conflict, the Texas served as a clear projection of American naval power, which dissuaded the German Navy from attacking Allied shipping lanes. In December 1918, the Texas escorted President Woodrow Wilson, aboard the SS George Washington, to the Paris Peace Conference, where the Central Powers were officially forced to admit defeat.

During the interwar period, the USS Texas served in both the Atlantic and Pacific Fleets, while chalking up a laundry list of tactical, technological, and political accomplishments. Following America’s formal declaration of war, the Texas served in two major offensives: Operation Torch (1942), a joint invasion of North Africa, and Operation Overlord (1944), one of the boldest amphibious assaults in history. During the opening hours of D-Day, the USS Texas bombarded German positions with 255 14-inch shells in approximately thirty minutes. The “Mighty T” supported subsequent amphibious assaults during Operation Dragoon, the assault on Iwo Jima, and the Battle of Okinawa.

A Veteran of Two World Wars: 7 Fascinating Facts about the USS Texas
A Marine detachment poses aboard the USS Texas, 1914. vetshq.com

“No Better Friend, No Worse Enemy”

In addition to boasting a compliment of approximately 1,000 Naval officers and enlisted sailors, the USS Texas was the first warship to feature a permanent contingent of U.S. Marines. The 1st Marine Division, which is still one of the most exalted units in the U.S. Marine Corps, was activated aboard the Texas on February 1, 1941. Marines routinely raided beaches since the Revolutionary War, but were never permanently assigned to a U.S. Naval warship until the outset of WWII. The leathernecks of the 1st MARDIV, much like their shipmates aboard the USS Texas, were no strangers to war.

The forerunner to the 1st Marine Division was the 1st Advanced Brigade, activated during the winter of 1913. This organizational ancestor of the 1st MARDIV underwent many restructurings and redesignations over the years, seeing action in Mexico, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, and France. This “Old Breed” of Marines fought over a dozen battles in WWI, including bloody engagements at Belleau Wood, Chateau-Thierry, and St. Mihiel. The unit was deactivated and recommissioned twice prior to WWII. Marines assigned to the unit alternated between infantry and artillery assignments just years prior to the activation of the 1st MARDIV aboard the USS Texas.

During the Second World War, Marines of the Division saw sporadic action across the Pacific. The Guadalcanal Campaign was the first engagement where the 1st Marine Division fought as a single, unified unit. Codenamed Operation Watchtower, Guadalcanal was America’s initial counteroffensive against Imperial Japan. Although a costly engagement, the Battle of Guadalcanal is widely regarded as a major turning point in the Pacific War.

The Texas later supported the 1st MARDIV during the bloody Battle of Okinawa, by first bombarding Japanese emplacements and later delivering on-call fire support for Marines fighting ashore. Combined, the Texas and the “Blue Diamond” delivered a knock-out one-two punch to the Empire of Japan.

A Veteran of Two World Wars: 7 Fascinating Facts about the USS Texas
Sailors firing a 3-inch .50 caliber gun. usslater.org

Battle Stations!

With the advent of combat aviation during the First World War, the various nations of the world saw a pressing and obvious need to counter the emerging threat of enemy aircraft. Although rudimentary compared to modern jets and strike fighters, WWI-era airships and airplanes gathered crucial intelligence and attacked targets on the land and sea with relative impunity. Some of the earliest methods employed to counter these aerial threats simply involved turning existing ground weapons towards the sky. Attempting to shoot down a biplane with a bolt-action rifle was crude at best, however, which led to the development of specialized weapons systems.

Beginning in the early twentieth-century, weapon designers and military officials started developing and testing a variety of antiaircraft (AA) systems. Some of the more popular anti-airship and AA guns of the period were the brainchildren of veteran companies, like Krupp and Vickers. Experimentation with calibers, fuses, and various types of ammunition led to the development of flak guns, cannons, and dedicated AA machine guns.

By 1915, approximately a dozen countries employed AA weaponry, with most of these platforms appearing on war-torn battlefields across the Western Front. Naval officials also recognized the threat of enemy aircraft at sea and began employing AA weapons aboard ships during the same period.

In 1916, the USS Texas was the first American warship outfitted with antiaircraft weapons, consisting of two 3-inch .50 caliber low-angle guns. Capable of delivering 76 mm shells, at a sustained rate of 15-20 rounds per minute, the 3″/50 caliber guns could reach targets at elevations up to 30,000 feet. The 3″/50 caliber AA gun made its land-based debut in 1890, underwent numerous design changes, and remained in lengthy service with the United States Navy until the closing shots of First Gulf War. The Texas’s AA battery grew significantly over the years, with the addition of six 3″/50 caliber guns, ten quad-mount 1.6″ Bofors, and forty-four 20 mm Oerlikon cannons.

A Veteran of Two World Wars: 7 Fascinating Facts about the USS Texas
British-built Sopwith “Camel” poised for launch aboard the USS Texas, 1919. bluejacket.com

Pioneering U.S. Naval Aviation

Aeronautics literally advanced by leaps and bounds during the early twentieth-century, with many warships playing critical roles in the development of naval aviation. Most of today’s naval planes and helicopters are launched from the decks of sophisticated aircraft carriers. During the early 1900s, however, aviation was generally a nascent technology, with fragile planes barely capable of executing land-based takeoffs and landings. Nevertheless, rapid technological advancements, coupled with bold naval experiments, culminated in the introduction of seaborne aircraft. Initial attempts involved pilots departing from coastal airfields and landing on vessels at sea. Later pioneers eventually launched their planes from modified platforms aboard a variety of ships.

Some of the earliest naval aviation developments came out of Europe, where innovative pilots and policy-makers pursued the idea of aerial sea-power. Ships of the period possessed the appropriate displacement and propulsion necessary to launch and capture aircraft at sea, while airplanes became lighter and more powerful with each successive design. Capitalizing upon these developments were nations like France and Great Britain, that instituted some of the world’s first organizations and schools dedicated to naval aviation. Royal Navy Lieutenant Charles Samson was the first pilot to launch an aircraft from an underway vessel, aboard the HMS Hibernia, in January 1912.

During the winter of 1910, American pilot Eugene Ely took-off from an anchored vessel off the coast of Virginia. On a subsequent flight, Ely later landed on a cruiser anchored in San Francisco Bay. Over the course of a decade, the U.S. Navy established the Bureau of Navigation, purchased several specialized aircraft, and trained pilots to become dedicated naval aviators. On March 10, 1919, Medal of Honor recipient, Edward Orrick McDonnell, launched his Sopwith Camel off a converted gun turret aboard the USS Texas. McDonnell was thus the first pilot to take-off from an American battleship, with the Texas taking center stage during this incredible moment in naval aviation history.

A Veteran of Two World Wars: 7 Fascinating Facts about the USS Texas
Technical drawing of a New York-class battleship, 1944. U.S. Naval Historical Center

On the Cutting Edge

Two prominent features of the USS Texas are her assortment of bristling, large-caliber gun turrets and the incredibly thick belt of armor protecting her hull. Designed in an era where ships were met to dish out punishment as well as take it, the “Mighty T” was more than capable of representing America’s interests abroad. As time progressed, however, so did the methods and means to wage war. The Texas was at the forefront of these technological innovations, including the use of sophisticated new devices, such as complex fire-control systems and an early form of modern radar.

Modern fire-control systems incorporate many features, including computers, directors, and radar, to improve the accuracy of weapon systems and the overall chances of striking hostile targets. In naval gunnery, fire-control systems typically work in tandem with AA weapons, large-bore cannons, torpedoes, or guided missiles. During the 1920s, when the Texas received the first of several upgrades, fire-control systems were slightly less sophisticated, relying on complex analog devices instead of computers and digitally-enhanced systems. Nevertheless, the USS Texas was the first battleship to incorporate some of the initial fire controls available to the U.S. Navy, which allowed her crew to deliver accurate and powerful fire over unprecedented distances.

A Veteran of Two World Wars: 7 Fascinating Facts about the USS Texas
USS Texas firing main batteries, 1928. U.S. Naval Historical Center

Enhancing the Texas’s tactical capabilities was the introduction of an early form of radar, known as CXAM (an acronym denoting the merging of two earlier, prototype radar technologies). This forerunner to modern naval threat-detection systems was tested extensively just prior to America’s official entrance into WWII. The USS Texas was one of fourteen vessels to receive a production version of this system, the CXAM-1. Outfitted on the ship in 1941, this improved model could detect enemy threats at ranges up to 100 miles. The CXAM-1 gave the USS Texas a decisive advantage at sea, while facing Japanese forces that lacked any comparable technology.

The USS Texas proved a force to be reckoned with during WWII, capitalizing upon her upgraded fire-control system, radar, and recent breakthroughs in naval aviation. During Operation Torch, the Texas utilized its CXAM-1 radar and OS2U Kingfisher spotter planes to perform valuable reconnaissance while off the coast of Northern Africa. Later, during the Battle of Normandy, the Texas participated in the pre-landing bombardment of Omaha Beach, later providing direct and indirect on-call fire support for troops that made it ashore. The “Mighty T” additionally pounded Iwo Jima and Okinawa, raining thousands of shells down upon Imperial Japanese forces, while defending her battlegroup against desperate kamikaze attacks.

A Veteran of Two World Wars: 7 Fascinating Facts about the USS Texas
USS Texas silhouetted against the sunset, while participating in North Atlantic convoy operations (c. 1941). National Archives

Fair Winds and Following Seas

During mid-May of 1945, the Texas arrived in the Philippines where she resupplied and awaited further orders. The Empire of Japan capitulated to the United States on August 15, whereupon the USS Texas returned to Okinawa. From there, she led the charge in Operation Magic Carpet, a massive endeavor to return over eight million deployed troops back to the United States. After several trips across the Pacific, the Texas departed San Pedro, California for Virginia. She arrived in Norfolk on February 13, 1946, prepared for deactivation, and was officially retired from active service on June 18, 1946.

Over the course of her long and distinguished career the Texas took part in dozens of battles. She was awarded five battle stars for meritorious and gallant service. On April 17, 1947, exactly 36 years after workers initially laid down the Texas’s keel in Newport News, Virginia, the Texas State Legislature established the Battleship Texas Commission. This group funded and oversaw the USS Texas’s journey from Baltimore, Maryland to the San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site, where she sits today.

A Veteran of Two World Wars: 7 Fascinating Facts about the USS Texas
Pearl Harbor ceremony aboard the USS Texas. Texas Parks & Wildlife Department

On April 21, 1948, the USS Texas was decommissioned, becoming the first permanent U.S. battleship memorial museum in the country. April 21 bears significant historical value for Texans, as it marks the 1836 Battle of San Jacinto, which ended the Texas War of Independence, establishing the Republic of Texas. Almost thirty years after being decommissioned, the USS Texas also became the first U.S. battleship to be designated a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark, by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers (1975), and a National Historic Landmark, by the National Park Service (1976).

A Veteran of Two World Wars: 7 Fascinating Facts about the USS Texas
USS Texas dry-docked in Galveston, Texas, 1988. Flickr

SOS (Save Our Ship)!

Sadly, the USS Texas continues to fight even in retirement. Constructed of iron, wood, and steel, the hundred-year-old ship constantly struggles against the march of time. During the early 1970s, newspapers reported that the Texas was literally rusting away underneath the feet of visiting patrons. A massive 1988-90 drydock project help to reconstitute and preserve the USS Texas, but the “Mighty T” again finds herself in troubled waters. Rampant leaks and crippling rust continue to threaten the integrity of the ship. The Battleship Texas Foundation estimates that approximately 300 tons of water are pumped off the Texas every single day.

Experts recently concluded that the only lasting solution to the problem is the permanent dry-berthing of the Texas, which would eliminate the threats of leaks and prevent any potential environmental damage to the surrounding ecosystem. Unfortunately, such an undertaking is projected to cost over $50 million, significantly more than what would be required to scrap the ship. Those interested in preserving the tremendous legacy of the USS Texas may get involved by contacting the following offices and organizations:

The Battleship Texas Foundation

The Texas Parks & Wildlife Department

Office of the Texas Governor, Greg Abbott

The Texas State Legislature

The Houston Chronicle

Neptune Research, Inc.

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