Battleship Closure Alert . . .

Glimpses of the Great War

In part two of our World War I com­mem­o­rative blog series, we take a look at the experience of sailors who served aboard Battleship Texas during The Great War. Battleship Texas is located 20 miles east of Houston, and is the last remaining U.S. battleship afloat to have served in both World Wars I and II.

This museum ship not only serves as a memorial to those who served aboard, but is also home to artifacts and archival material related to the ship’s service life. These diaries, interviews, and books offer us the following glimpse of life aboard Battleship Texas during WWI.

 


 

Black and white photo of the ship at sea. Typed text says "Steaming in heavy seas."
Battleship Texas encountered rough seas that gave many of the crew members their first taste of the hardships encountered in the U.S. Navy during WWI. (TPWD - Battleship Texas Archives)

Battleship Texas’ entry into World War I started with a collision. The Texas set sail to join the British Grand Fleet in September 1917, but promptly ran aground off Block Island, Rhode Island.

Crew member Mark Murnane remem­bers the collision. “I was routed from sleep by a terrific crash that rocked the ship from stem to stern and brought me sitting up in my bunk. A rumbling tremor surged fore and aft, as if we had suddenly changed from full speed ahead to dead astern on both port and star­board engines, followed by a loud, grating noise up [forward]. Convulsive shudders shook the ship from top to bottom for several seconds, then she settled back with a list to starboard.” 1

The Texas ran aground because her navigation crew was, by crew member accounts, led astray by what they thought was the guiding light at Block Island, but turned out to be a light stationed on land on the other side of Block Island. This caused the ship to stray from safe shipping lanes and become stuck in shallow waters.

Texas’ crew worked hard to lighten the ship by off-loading coal, ammunition, bulk stores, and any other moveable weight. After removing about 4,000 tons of weight, the ship finally slipped free when tugs pulled. 2

Once Texas was free, it was apparent that the damage was too extensive for the ship to continue with the rest of the Scot­land-bound fleet. She was left behind to lick her wounds.

“Over There”

Sepia photo of a British mine-layer ship.
Duties included escorting British ships on mine-laying and patrol missions. (TPWD - Battleship TEXAS Archives)

After a period of repairs and training missions to get the ship’s crew squared away, Texas finally set sail to join the British in their patrol of the North Atlantic on Jan. 30, 1918. The 12-day crossing to Scapa Flow, Orkney Islands was bitter and rough.

“It was a tense, cranky time… A dim world, below (decks)—the air was foul, thick enough to roll into balls, from the hatches being battened. Wet every­where, as she took lots of water through the gun shutters.” 3

During this time, sailors new to the Navy got acquainted with sea sickness. They also learned not to leave anything impor­tant on the deck in their berthing areas, because water washed in through the gun ports and sloshed freely around the second deck.

Map of Texas’s operations in the North Sea during WWI. Texas spent almost 10 months with the British Grand Fleet escorting ships on mine-laying missions, con­ducting gunnery drills, and par­ti­ci­pating in fleet maneuvers in the North Sea. The various patrols and activities of the Grand Fleet were primarily meant to counter and deter movements of the German High Seas Fleet. Texas criss­crossed the North Sea to and from Norway, Denmark, and Scotland.

During this convoy duty, things settled into a monotonous grind, especially when the ship was at sea, or when there was no hope of going ashore on liberty.

Sepia photo of a few soldiers keeping watch
The crew was on guard while patrolling the North Sea to avoid attack by German submarines and ships. (TPWD - Battleship Texas Archives)

In his diary, Charles McCall Newton, a sailor aboard Texas in 1924, complains about the unvarying routine aboard the ship at sea: “Same routine. It actually is beginning to grow monotonous… Have finally realized how hard it is to wrote [sic] an interesting diary. If this was for Naval terms and customs I could very well fill it up. However, I want to remember something besides the actual routine.” 4

The day-to-day slog aboard the ship included regular ship main­te­nance, drills, cleaning, bringing coal aboard the ship, and the never-ending watch for hazards in the water (submarines, other ships, and flotsam).

Submarine Fever

Sepia photo of sailors lined up on deck looking for submarines. Handwritten text says: "After a sub show (sic) up April 18-19"
The crew was forever on the lookout for submarines they feared would launch torpedoes at the ship. (TPWD - Battleship Texas Archives)

Despite covering thousands of miles on the North Sea, TEXAS did not see combat with the German Navy in World War I.

But the vigilant crew made a number of “submarine sight­ings.” There is a chance, however, that the relatively inex­pe­ri­enced (and bored) crew members aboard Texas let their imaginations and excite­ment get the better of them.

The “cruise book” of Texas’ experience in WWI claims that “German U-Boats . . . time and again bobbed up unexpectedly close to us, sending torpedoes our way to sink us.” 5 Evidently, “submarine fever” was circulating around the ship, but the sightings were never confirmed as submarines. Sources indicate that the most likely subject of these sightings were pods of dolphins.

Leisure Activities

Sepia team photo of soldiers in baseball uniforms
Champion baseball team. July 19, 1918. (TPWD - Battleship Texas Archives)

In between missions, Texas’ crew indulged in friendly competition between ships. Texas won the inter-fleet Baseball Championship, and showed well in a Smoker (boxing tournament) hosted aboard. Athletics, games, theater productions and other means of enter­tain­ment helped buoy morale for the ship’s crew and offered something to keep idle sailors occupied.

Armistice!

Although Texas and the other U.S. ships that joined the British Grand Fleet kept their skills honed while waiting to engage the German High Seas Fleet, a con­fron­tation never happened. Indeed, the ships acted as deterrents for the German Fleet, and con­tri­buted to events that ended the War. The sailors of the German High Seas Fleet were aware that the arrival of the U.S. battleships had made it im­pos­sible for them to fight and win a battle with the Allied fleet.

Nov. 11, 1918, dawned like any other day, and announcements about the general Armistice were posted aboard ships in the Allied fleet with little fanfare. 6 As the day wore on, however, excitement grew to a fever pitch and finally gave way in an exuberant celebration among the ships. One press release describes the sight:

"The fleet at anchor…gave light and ‘voice’ at one synchronized moment. The effect of the sudden switching on of myriad lights was dazzling, but that of the combined noise of sirens…was more wonderful still. It was a volume of sound, never of it’s kind [sic], perhaps equaled in intensity before, and it must have been heard over a radius of a hundred miles. With star shells, fireworks, search­lights making all sorts of patterns on the sky, the Fleet let itself go for two full hours. Then at ten o’clock the sirens suddenly ceased; the lights snapped out, and in the chill November night the Fleet resumed it’s silent watch [sic].” 7

After the armistice, Texas was on hand to rendezvous with the German Fleet when they surrendered on Nov. 21, 1918. Texas and others of the allied fleet escorted the German ships back to the Firth of Forth.

Sepia photo of German ship. Handwritten text: "With Ships Like This - still Germany Wouldn't Fight - Photo by Denson - "
The Texas help escort surrendered German battleships to the Firth of Forth. (TPWD - Battleship Texas Archives)
Sepia photo of German soldiers on deck of ship looking down at photographer. Handwritten text: "German soldiers aboard one of the surrendered ships. Photo by Denson"
Scenes of the ships and German sailors who surrendered on Nov. 21 were a popular topic for ship photographers aboard Texas. (TPWD - Battleship Texas Archives)

Returning Home

On Dec. 1, 1918 Commander-in-Chief of the Grand Fleet, Admiral Sir David Beatty, wished the Sixth Battle Squadron farewell after the war was over. After those parting words, Texas and other U.S. ships de­par­ted for home. Texas returned to Amer­i­can waters on Christmas Day, 1918. The ship arrived in New York the following day to much praise and celebration:

“Cheering, seething masses of humanity jammed the shore line, and thousands more perched precariously on roofs and in win­dows of adjacent buildings, all intent on viewing the mag­ni­fi­cent spec­tacle of the mighty armada filing by. Waving flags and banners, the throngs cheered continuously, while tug­boats coursing the river and ships tied up to piers punctuated the human outbursts with shrill blasts of their whistles and loud ringing of their bells. The dinning medley of sounds rang out for miles along the water front, and, commingling, caromed off skyscraper walls to echo again and again in our ears.” 8

Scenes from the Great War aboard Battleship Texas

A temporary World War I commemorative exhibit titled, “The War Illustrated: Scenes from the Great War,” will be on display aboard Battleship from March to No­vem­ber 2018. This exhibit, created in collab­o­ration with the University of Sheffield, tells the story of America’s entry into World War I, and the crucial involve­ment of the U.S. Navy as told in the pages of a British magazine, The War Illustrated. This exhibit is free with general admission.

logo for blog series - text says: WWI 100 Years" 

This blog series is a collaboration among Texas Parks and Wildlife’s Historic Sites and Structures Program, Interpretive Services Program, and Battleship Texas State Historic Site. Stay tuned for our next post!

 


1 Mark Murnane, Ground Swells: Of Sailors, Ships, and Shellac (New York: Exposition Press, 1949), 101.

2 Paul Schubert, Come on, Texas (New York: Jonathan Cape and Harrison Smith, Inc., 1930), 95.

3 Schubert, Come on, Texas, 112. 

4 Paul A. Riley, United States Naval Academy Midshipman Cruise Aboard U.S.S. TEXAS (BB-35), June-August 1924: A Long Lost Diary (Submitted to the United States Navy Alumni Association for possible publication, 1998), [3].

5 The World War I Document Archive, “North Sea Days: A Brief History of the U.S.S. TEXAS and Life Generally in the North Sea During a War,” accessed online November 23, 2017, http://www.gwpda.org/naval/txnseady.htm.

6 “North Sea Days,” P.89.

7 Press release, November 11, 1918, “The Sea Lion’s Roar: How the Navy Received the News,” Battleship TEXAS Archives, LaPorte, TX, accession number 1988.143.14.

8 Murnane, Ground Swells, 467.