Threatened American Museum Ships Are Unique as WW1 Monuments

USS TEXAS underway shortly after commissioning.

USS TEXAS underway shortly after commissioning.

Naval vessels which saw service in the First World War are comparatively rare among preserved structures, and those which are extant today represent the oldest steel-hulled warships in existence.  While a naval arms race, chiefly between Great Britain and Imperial Germany, was significant in the rise of international tensions leading to the outbreak of war in 1914, survivors from these once substantial fleets are extremely rare.  In St. Petersburg, Russia, the cruiser AURORA, which saw service in the Russo-Japanese War (1904) and WW1 with the Imperial Russian Navy, and later the Soviet Navy, has been a permanently-moored memorial since the 1950s.  In Northern Ireland, the Jutland-veteran cruiser HMS CAROLINE has been preserved through her long service as a Royal Navy drill ship and will soon undergo restoration in conjunction with the centenary of the war.

In the United States, where more historic warships are on display than any other nation, two vessels with connections to the First World War have been preserved, though both of these ships face dire threats as we approach the war’s centenary.

USS TEXAS (BB35), commissioned in 1914, is the only example of a dreadnought battleship left in the world today.  During much of 1918, following America’s entry into the First World War, TEXAS escorted convoys, sortied with the British Grand Fleet, and was part of the Allied force which met the Imperial German High Seas Fleet in the North Sea on its way to surrender at the British naval base of Scapa Flow.

Modernized between the wars, TEXAS remained in service during World War II and was decorated for combat action in the Normandy campaign in 1944, as well as in the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa in 1945.  In 1948, the battleship was donated to her namesake state and placed on display in the Houston Ship Channel near the San Jacinto monument.

The battleship TEXAS as she appears today near the Houston Ship Channel.

The battleship TEXAS as she appears today near the Houston Ship Channel.

Over the decades, countless visitors from across the country and around the world have explored the USS TEXAS, drawn not only for the ship’s connection with US naval actions in both world wars, but also to appreciate her as a priceless example of historic pre-World-War-I American naval construction.

The preservation of USS TEXAS since her decommissioning has not been without its challenges.  In the 1980s, after some 40 years on display, the ship faced a serious threat to her underwater hull body brought on by long-term immersion in the mud and silt of her permanent berth.  In a massive multi-year undertaking beginning in 1988, the battleship was refloated and towed to dry dock where decades of deterioration to her hull plating was addressed, and steps to substantially restore her late World War II appearance were completed.  In the summer of 2012, massive flooding brought on by numerous leaks in the ship’s aging hull required temporary closure of the vessel while costly dewatering, residual fuel containment, and temporary repairs were undertaken.  Starting in April 2013, the Texas Parks and Recreation Department, which has custody of the vessel, will begin a massive $17M stabilization project aimed at replacing some of the most badly deteriorated portions of the vessel’s structure below the waterline.

While stewards of the battleship TEXAS will be digging deeply into endowment funds to stabilize critical areas of ship, the custodians of the armored cruiser USS OLYMPIA at Penn’s Landing in Philadelphia, another historic American vessel with a connection to the First World War, face an even graver challenge.

USS OLYMPIA in her Spanish-American War configuration.

USS OLYMPIA in her Spanish-American War configuration.

Commissioned in 1895, the protected cruiser OLYMPIA is the oldest steel-hulled warship in the world.  Her main claim to fame is having served as flagship for Commodore George Dewey at the 1898 Battle of Manila Bay during the Spanish American War.  As a pre-dreadnaught design, OLYMPIA was outclassed by subsequent naval technology during the first decade of the 20th Century and was eventually placed in reserve.  Following America’s entry in the First World War, however, the famed cruiser was returned to active duty where she patrolled the American coast and escorted convoys in the Atlantic.  In April 1918, OLYMPIA carried an American expeditionary force to Russia, then in the midst of revolution and civil war, and subsequently was involved with the occupation of Archangel during the American intervention there.  In 1921, the ship had the honor of transporting the remains of the Unknown Soldier from France to the US for burial at Arlington Cemetery.

After decommissioning in 1922, OLYMPIA was docked at the Philadelphia Navy Yard, eventually attaining the status of a preserved relic.  In 1957, the ship was turned over to the Cruiser Olympia Association for restoration to her 1898 configuration and public display on the Philadelphia waterfront.  Last dry docked for hull maintenance in 1945, OLYMPIA’s condition below the waterline has steadily deteriorated over the intervening decades, and now the famous ship, which is under the auspices of the Independence Seaport Museum, is in a race with time for her very existence.  With an estimated $10M needed to dry dock and stabilize the cruiser, and without the ability to fund such a project, The Independence Seaport in Philadelphia has been directed by the Naval Sea Systems Command (NAVSEA) Donated Ship Program, to solicit potential new owners who may be able to save the ship before she is scrapped or sunk as an artificial reef.  Ironically, the Navy’s cost estimate to prepare the ship for “reefing” approaches the projected cost of stabilization – i.e. saving it.

The armored cruiser USS OLYMPIA as she appears today on the Philadelphia waterfront.

The armored cruiser USS OLYMPIA as she appears today on the Philadelphia waterfront.

What can the public gain from the preservation of these historic naval ships?  Why should the considerable costs incurred in such projects be borne by Americans?

Historic vessels such as TEXAS and OLYMPIA represent a tangible connection with events that shaped who we are as Americans; the stories which they tell have the power to inspire today’s generation as well as tomorrow’s; both of these vessels form part of our national collective memory of American involvement in the First World War.  More than just collections of objects on exhibition, ships such as these offer the visitor a total-tactile-immersion experience that connects them not only with the individuals who manned these ships during events of national importance, but also with those countless Americans who designed, built, and maintained them across the decades, often using skills and methods which have long since vanished.  Indeed, in these two ships we have remarkable examples of historic American engineering which can never be replaced; likewise the connection to the past which they provide is unattainable once lost.