Budgets May Conquer the Survivor of 2 Wars
Age, relentless corrosion from saltwater and tight budgets are doing what no bombs, torpedoes or bullets have accomplished.
Sixteen years after the state spent $14 million to help preserve the nearly century-old Battleship Texas -- the only remaining battleship to survive World Wars I and II -- the ship needs an overhaul to keep it from rusting away.
“The ship is in need of significant repair,” said Steve Whiston, director of the infrastructure division of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which maintains the 573-foot-long, 34,000-ton vessel in a berth on the Houston Ship Channel. “There is corrosion at the water line. We’re continuing to experience problems that cause us concern. And the ship, given its age, is pretty fragile.”
So fragile that chronically leaky air tanks -- known as blisters and added to the exterior during the 1920s for stability -- sprung a serious leak one night. By morning, the ship was listing 4 degrees to starboard.
“It got all of us excited but we’re satisfied it’s stable,” Whiston said.
The water was pumped out and the leak patched, at least temporarily.
“If you are going to acknowledge you’re going to keep some historic ships, there is a very strong argument this is at least as good, if not the best, one to keep,” said Barry Ward, curator of the Texas.
Ward said the ship was a unique piece of technology in terms of the time period it represents.
“This goes from the very beginning of the age of flight through the nuclear age,” he said.
The oldest of the eight remaining American battlewagons, the Texas is the last of the Dreadnought class, patterned after the British battleship that featured unprecedented speed and armaments at the turn of the 20th century. Launched in 1912 and commissioned two years later, the Texas was touted as the world’s most powerful weapon.
In World War I, it served as U.S. flagship in the British Grand Fleet. In 1940, it was named flagship of the U.S. Atlantic Fleet, took part in D-Day in 1944, later experienced casualties when hit by German artillery off France, and provided Pacific support for World War II battles at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
Decommissioned in 1948, the Texas eventually was put under the care of the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, which keeps the ship as part of San Jacinto Battlegrounds State Park near Houston.
In 1988, a major restoration -- the first in 40 years -- required that it be towed to a Galveston shipyard, where the hull essentially was replaced. And despite what turned out to be a Band-Aid solution, Ward said he believed that the work saved the ship from an almost certain demise.
“Possibly, within a year or two, if they hadn’t done that, this ship would no longer have been able to be towed anywhere for repair,” he said.
The same kind of decision looms now -- without money or a convenient place for repairs.
“A ship like that really needs significant dry-dock repairs every eight to 10 years, so we’re really past our cycle,” Whiston said.
The Texas Legislature approved about $12 million for bonds to pay for renovations but didn’t provide debt service -- the money -- to issue the bonds, Whiston said. Park officials hope to remedy that with a budget request when lawmakers return to Austin in January.
But since the last round of extensive repairs, the Galveston dry dock where the Texas was towed ceased business, and there’s doubt that any shipyard in Texas can do the job. The Parks and Wildlife Department hasn’t been immune to state budget trimming. And there’s uncertainty whether the ship could endure the rigors of a move.
“It’s fine floating in one place, but when you put a ship of that age in open water, that stress, we were concerned we may lose it,” Whiston said.
One proposal calls for building a dam around where the ship is docked, along with a dry dock, allowing engineers to remove the water as needed to make repairs. Another idea is to permanently elevate the ship from the water on a kind of cradle.
“As long as the state decides to have this, it’s my job to do the best I can to take care of it and guide the state in the decision-making process of how to take care of it,” said Ward, who has been in charge of the ship for five years.
For now, that means an almost continuous painting effort with Measure 21 Dark Blue, the color the Texas wore at the end of World War II. The wood deck, originally teak, was replaced decades ago with less expensive southern pine, then at some point after decommissioning was covered with cement -- an error that’s led to maintenance problems. The deck is being scrubbed of cement and repainted. Deck replacement, even with pine, would easily top seven figures, Ward said.
Inside the Texas, some of the living quarters and working areas are being restored with as many actual items as possible. Ward has been scouring Internet auctions for artifacts. Some equipment that can’t be replaced, such as small light fixtures over desks, are being handmade to duplicate originals.
The curator said he would like to equip areas of the ship with taped audio presentations for the 150,000 annual visitors whose $5 admission fee goes into the department’s general fund.
Areas closed off to the public show how difficult the work is. Lead paint and asbestos must be removed, and rust and dirt are everywhere. And except for a few scattered hang-on units that obviously weren’t original, there is no air conditioning.
A project is underway to restore the quarters of the ship’s physician. Another involves restoration of the radio room. In an eating area, Ward found a painted wood wall section with dozens of pinholes. It turned out to be the old location for a dartboard, and he was able to find a match.
Victories like that are small for a ship where “challenges are everywhere you turn. I’m a museum specialist, a historian and archeologist by training,” Ward said. “This is the kind of thing you are not schooled to be an expert in. You become one.”