With a new coat of paint on its decks and a brisk north wind snapping its pennants, the Battleship Texas on Wednesday welcomed home a gang of old warriors — men, who, though perhaps worn by years, still evinced the vigor of "the greatest generation."
The battleship is significant because "she fought for our freedom," said Johnita Smith, the USS Texas Veterans Association chair whose father sailed on the Texas during World War II.
For the aged sailors, Wednesday marked a sentimental, if final, call to duty.
"This will more than likely be the last time they'll see the ship. That's huge," Smith said. "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 USS Texas and its former crew members — marking both what was billed as the "final reunion" for the ship's World War II sailors and the 100th anniversary of the vessel's commissioning.
Thirty-two sailors — the oldest said to be 101 — attended the morning ceremony on the ship's bow. The celebration will continue Saturday with a concert, headlined by Robert Earl Keen, military flyovers and a fireworks exhibit.
"Young people today talk about 'multi-tasking,'" keynote speaker Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst told the veterans and about 200 of their family members. "But multi-tasking 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."
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, was the first vessel to launch an airplane, and mount anti-aircraft guns and one of the first to be equipped with 14-inch guns capable of hurling 1,500 pound shells 36,000 yards.
Among the most fearsome of the Navy's fighting vessels, the Texas first saw service during World War I. During World War II, it shelled Axis positions during the North African campaign and the Normandy landings. In the Pacific, it participated in the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
Orlan Scott, 87, was only 17 when he found himself assigned to the battleship's Turret 3. The retired Waco, Texas, diesel mechanic recalled 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. Once, the crew was at battle stations for more than 50 days. "Sometimes we would bombard through the night. 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 its action in some of the fiercest battles of World War II, the Texas sustained only one fatality. A German shell fired at the ship 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 say that the total number of sailors who served on the Texas during World War II is uncertain but say 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, told the veterans that theirs was "a great story."
"This history is yours," he said. "You lived it, you made it."
The ceremony also featured video addresses to the group from former President George W. Bush and Admiral William McRaven, commander of the U.S. Special Operations Command.
Wednesday's activities, which culminated in an afternoon tour of the ship, also featured pomp in the form of color guards and 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, first-person reminisces 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 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.