BY MIKE WARD | Friday, Nov. 29, 2013, 9:56 PM
LA PORTE — With her 100th anniversary fast approaching, the old lady in gray is sinking fast.
Despite a $25 million state bond issue seven years ago to help preserve the retired USS Texas, the storied vessel — once the most powerful ship on the seas and the only remaining battleship that fought in both world wars — faces a bleak future as officials race against time to keep an increasing number of holes plugged in its hull and raise as much as $80 million more for long-lasting repairs.
“Over time she’s just rusting away,” said Andy Smith, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s manager of the famed battleship site southeast of Houston. “Time and the elements are doing to the battleship Texas what two world wars couldn’t — do her in.”
Added Bruce Bramlett, executive director of the Battleship Texas Foundation that’s raising private funds as fast as it can to assist the preservation project: “If you let this battleship go, if you don’t restore her, you will lose an irreplaceable piece of history, a piece of Texas. You might as well crank up the bulldozers and knock down the Alamo.”
Even as workers are racing to shore up the corroded mounts on the battleship’s two, 1,100-ton engines to keep them from failing and perhaps knocking more holes in the hull, Bramlett and other supporters are working to raise $15 million for additional repairs — far less than might eventually be needed to restore the ship, “but a good start to save her.”
That initiative includes plans for a large-scale public celebration next March, marking the 100th anniversary of the ship’s commissioning. It will feature “A Texas Uprising” musical extravaganza by Hill Country singer Robert Earle Keen, a reunion of remaining crew members, special historical exhibits, demonstrations and a fireworks show that will likely include firing one of the battleship’s smaller guns.
One of just three former U.S. Navy ships of its age or older still in existence, the USS Texas was the second American battleship named for the Lone Star State. Replacing a smaller battleship that fought in the Spanish-American War, her hull was launched at the Newport News, Va., shipyard in 1910 — the same year as the Titanic — and she sailed into service with a crew of about 1,200 sailors on March 12, 1914.
The current USS Texas is a nuclear submarine, Navy officials said.
For a time, the battleship Texas patrolled the seas as one of the most powerful battleships in the world, boasting 10 huge 14-inch guns in five turrets that could destroy targets up to 12 miles away, plus an array of smaller but just as deadly weapons. About 350 men were needed to fire the big guns, which shot 1,500-pound shells.
“They were the thermonuclear devices of their day,” Smith said. “At the time it was floated, this ship was fearful to anyone who came up against it.”
As the only remaining U.S. dreadnought battleship still in existence, the Texas holds a number of other records — first to have a permanently assigned Marine contingent aboard, first to launch an airplane from its deck, first to mount anti-aircraft guns on its deck, first to show “talking pictures” for crew entertainment, first to control its gunfire with directors and range-keepers (the forerunners of computers), one of the first to receive radar, the first such warship to become a museum and the first to be declared a national historical landmark.
After World War II, the Texas transported thousands of servicemen back to the United States from Okinawa and Hawaii before being turned over to the state of Texas as a memorial museum in 1948. But deferred maintenance and a lack of adequate funding eventually took its toll, and, by the late 1960s, the hull was corroded and leaking, and the wooden deck was rotted and leaking badly.
In 1971, the hull was sandblasted and painted using $50,000 in donations from charitable foundations. In 1988, the ship was towed to a Galveston dry dock and given a $15 million makeover that replaced about 15 percent of the steel hull, before it was returned to its berth in brackish water on the Houston Ship Channel near the San Jacinto Battleground State Historic Site.
By 2004, the corrosive water was again taking its toll. Texas voters in 2007 approved $25 million in bonds to dry-berth the ship to stop the deterioration, along with $4 million to be raised in private funds. The first funds for the project were not released until two years later, and, by June 2010, the corroding hull had sprung new leaks that caused it to sink 2-3 feet in its mooring.
Two years later, 30 new leaks had to be fixed and the ship was closed to visitors for three weeks to allow for repairs. In July 2012, state and federal officials determined the dry-dock plan would be much more costly than expected. The ship’s deterioration has continued, and, this summer, Smith said crews patched 90 leaks of varying sizes — with some sections characterized as “paper thin” due to corrosion.
Officials now say building a dry-berth for the ship at its current site could cost upwards of $80 million.
“The structure of the ship is in too bad a shape to get it into a dry dock,” laments Smith. “A lot more is going to be needed to get the job done right. The Navy had 1,800 men working to maintain this ship, and we have 18.”
But he and Bramlett remain optimistic that the ship can and will be saved, and ship museums around the country are closely watching what happens to the Texas.
“It’s a significant icon of what the state of Texas stands for,” said state Sen. Sylvia Garcia, D-Houston, a member of the Battleship Texas Foundation board. “It’s to Texas what the Astrodome is to Houston, a symbol. I can’t imagine not preserving it.”