NEWPORT NEWS, Va. — Among the many renowned battleships built at Newport News, the legendary dreadnought USS Texas (BB-35) may be the most famous.
Commissioned a century ago Wednesday, the 27,000-ton "Old T" and its sister ship the USS New York were the first two American ships whose main guns crossed the magical 14-inch threshold.
During a 32-year-long career that spanned both World Wars, the Texas also scored a remarkable number of US Navy firsts, becoming the first US battleship mounted with anti-aircraft guns, the first US battleship to launch an aircraft from a catapult, the first US ship to control gunfire with directors and range-keepers and a American navy pioneer in the testing and adoption of radar, among other achievements.
One hundred years after entering the U.S. fleet, it continues to reign as the world's only remaining dreadnought-class battleship, one of only a handful of surviving warships to have fought in both World Wars and the first American battleship to become a permanent museum vessel as well as a National Historic Landmark.
Laid down on April 17, 1911, the 573-foot-long Texas was on the stocks for just over a year before its launch, writes naval historian William A. Fox in "Always Good Ships: Histories of Newport News Ships."
The second ship to bear its name, it was Newport News Shipbuilding's 147th hull, and it sailed from Hampton Roads for New York just hours after its commissioning on March 12, 1914, its decks bristling with five huge turrets and 10 14-inch guns capable of hurling 1,400-pound armor-piercing shells as far as 13 miles.
During World War I, the Texas served with the British Grand Fleet, carrying out convoy duties and escorting American mine-layers as they bolstered the great North Sea mine barrage. At the war's end it was showcased as an escort ship for President Woodrow Wilson's arrival in France.
In 1919, the Texas became the first American battleship to launch an aircraft from a catapult, enabling it to carry out pioneering tests proving the greatly increased accuracy of gunfire directed by airborne spotters. Six years later, it began a major overhaul and modernization project at the Norfolk Navy Yard in Portsmouth, during which its old cage-style masts were replaced with a single tripod and its out-dated coal-burning boilers swapped out for new oil-burners.
With its appearance and its fire-control systems transformed, the Texas served as the flagship of the US fleet before deploying to the West Coast. It returned in 1937, and, with the opening of World War II, fought first in the Atlantic, using its big guns to provide shore bombardment support during the invasions of North Africa, Normandy and Southern France.
Among its passengers during the North African landings was famed reporter Walter Cronkite, who was just beginning his career as a war correspondent.
In late June 1944, the ship was hit twice by German shore batteries during the Allied bombardment of Cherbourg, sustaining 11 casualties and forcing it to return to port for repairs in Plymouth, England after completing its heavy gunfire support duties.
Deployed to the Pacific in November 1944, the Texas played a vital role in the American island-hopping campaign, bombarding Iwo Jima and Okinawa as well as sites in the Philippines.
It ended the war by ferrying four shiploads of troops back to California, then was deactivated at Norfolk in 1946 after winning five battle stars.
Just over a year later, the Old T was towed to Texas instead being scrapped, then decommissioned and transferred to the State of Texas as a memorial.
It became a National Historic Landmark in 1976.