Pomp, emotion greet old sailors as Battleship Texas turns 100
With a new coat of paint on its decks and a brisk north wind snapping its pennants Wednesday, the Battleship Texas welcomed back a gang of old warriors - men, who, though perhaps worn by years, still evinced the vigor of "the greatest generation."
For the aged sailors, Wednesday marked a sentimental, and possibly final, call to duty.
"This will more than likely be the last time they'll see the ship. That's huge,'' said Johnita Smith, the USS Texas Veterans Association chair whose father sailed on the Texas during World War II. "They served aboard for a year or four or five … and today was the last day they were going to see her.''
It was a double celebration for the venerable vessel and its former crew members - marking what was billed as the "final reunion" for the ship's WW II sailors as well as the 100th anniversary of its commissioning.
Thirty-two sailors - the oldest said to be 101 - attended the morning ceremony on the ship's bow. The celebration continues Saturday with a concert, headlined by Robert Earl Keen, military flyovers and fireworks.
"Young people today talk about 'multitasking,' " Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst said in a keynote address to the veterans and about 200 of their family members. "But multitasking is what you did as the fire was coming in. You stuck with your guns. You are what made the greatest generation the greatest generation."
Litany of firsts
The old dreadnaught, which became the nation's first military ship museum when it was docked at the San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site in 1948, also was the first vessel to launch an airplane and mount anti-aircraft guns, and was one of the first to carry 14-inch guns capable of hurling 1,500-pound shells 36,000 yards.
Among the most fearsome of the Navy's fighting vessels, the USS Texas first saw service during World War I. During WW II, it shelled Axis positions during the North African campaign and the Normandy landings. In the Pacific, it fought at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
Orlan Scott, 87, was only 17 when he found himself assigned to the battleship's Turret 3. The retired Waco diesel mechanic recalled that his duties included hefting 100-pound sacks of powder into a hoist for the big guns.
"There were about 80 of us. It was like ants down there," he recalled. Scott said five to seven bags were required for each shot, and remembers that the crew once was at battle stations for more than 50 days.
"Sometimes we would bombard through the night," he said. "You'd roll out of bed and everyone would go to their stations … These shells would shoot every minute and a half … The heat was intense."
After troop landings, Scott said, battleships would disperse offshore to lessen vulnerability to suicide airplane attacks. "Our captain said it," Scott said, "Suicide planes in Okinawa were a dime a dozen."
Despite seeing action in some of the fiercest battles of WW II, the Texas sustained only one fatality. A German shell fired during the Battle of Cherbourg hit the navigation bridge and exploded. Helmsman Christen Christensen was killed; 10 others were wounded.
On Wednesday, all 32 veterans were presented "patriot medals" commissioned by the Battleship Texas Foundation. Smith estimated about 90 survivors are still alive. Ship officials said that the total number of sailors who served aboard the Texas during WW II is uncertain, but that at any given time there were as many as 1,800 aboard.
After describing the ship's major battles, Carter Smith, executive director of the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife, which manages the ship museum, assured the veterans that theirs was "a great story."
"This history is yours," Smith said. "You lived it, you made it."
The ceremony also featured video addresses to the group from former President George W. Bush and from Adm. William McRaven, commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command.
The day's activities, which culminated in a tour of the ship, also featured color guards, a concert band - and emotion. More than once, graying one-time sailors were seen dabbing at their eyes with tissue. Some brought with them mementos of their service years, news clippings, and framed photos of their younger selves in Navy uniforms.
"If I had thought when I got my orders on the Texas that something like this would occur," said veteran Alvin Hall, stopping in mid-sentence to survey the crowd seated in plastic chairs on the deck. "Well, I just wouldn't have believed it. It's impressive. It's mind-boggling."
Bruce Bramlett, director of the battleship foundation, which joined the state in hosting Wednesday's activities, called the USS Texas reunion "possibly the most exciting day on these hallowed grounds since Gen. Santa Anna handed his sword to Gen. Sam Houston."
Unmentioned during the day of celebration was the ship's deteriorated condition, which the state has spent $25 million to remedy. Profits from Saturday's concert will go to the battleship foundation's fund to finance exhibiting the Texas in an out-of-water setting.