A youngster sits at the controls of an anti-aircraft gun on the deck of a warship spinning the still-functioning elevation control, raising and lowering the gun barrel as his father points out how sailors aimed the weapon. Craig Russell, a U.S. Army artilleryman stationed at Fort Polk in Louisiana, explains the finer details of gunnery techniques, but 6-year-old Damon is having too much fun to listen.
The Russells are touring the Battleship Texas, commissioned as the USS Texas in 1914 and today a floating museum in La Porte. The Battleship Texas BB-35 State Historic Site is home to the world’s last dreadnought battleship and the last surviving U.S. warship to serve in both world wars. Developed before World War I, dreadnoughts were the world’s most powerful weapons at a time when international clout was demonstrated on the high seas.
“The Battleship Texas is an amazing historical artifact,” says Ship Manager Andy Smith of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. “It represents the first 50 years of modern naval technology, from the first battleship to launch an airplane in 1919 to the first to use radar in 1939.”
The Texas sits docked in a sea of petrochemical complexes along the Houston Ship Channel adjacent to the San Jacinto Battle State Historic Site. The ship is a hub of activity as visitors scramble through hatchways and down stairs to visit crew quarters below deck, where as many as 1,400 sailors lived. On the bow, visitors climb into the massive No. 1 turret to see where sailors loaded 14-inch shells into twin guns. People scurry high above the deck on the conning tower, taking in spectacular views of the Texas and shipping traffic on the channel.
The Texas is best known for its service in World War II when it fought in both the European and Pacific theaters of the war. The battleship bombarded the enemy during amphibious landings including D-Day in 1944 and assaults on the Pacific islands of Iwo Jima and Okinawa in 1945.
“The Texas witnessed some of the most iconic images of World War II,” Smith says. “You can stand where crewmembers watched from the bridge as the flag was raised on Mount Suribachi” during the battle for Iwo Jima.
After World War II, aging battleships were offered to their namesake states, but only Texas accepted the offer, Smith says. Decommissioned, the Texas was officially transferred to the state in 1948.
In 2009, the Legislature approved funding to build a permanent dry berth for the ship at its present location. Those plans were put on hold in 2012 when the battleship experienced severe flooding from leaks. Structural repairs are now being made to the ship, Smith says, which remains open to the public.
Visitors can daily take self-guided tours or join occasional tours of areas not open to the general public. Guided “hardhat” tours offer a look at areas such as the ammo-handling room, boiler room, main radio room and the pilothouse. The Battleship Texas Foundation also offers overnight stays on board for groups. Participants sleep in bunk beds, just as the crew did.
“One of the coolest things about the Texas is getting a sense of the conditions the crew lived and worked under,” Smith says. “You can walk the deck and imagine what it was like to be here in the middle of North Atlantic storms or in the heat of the South Pacific.”
Jeff Joiner is Texas Co-op Power editor.