At one time they numbered in the many thousands. Over more than 30years of service in peace and two world wars, generation after generation of sailors walked her decks and called her home. Today, 63 years after the last time the Texas fired its guns in anger, they’re down to only a few dozen. Of this dwindling group, sixteen members of the USS Texas Veterans Association managed to make it to their annual reunion on their old ship, at San Jacinto State Park. Once upon a time they were young, bright-eyed and brave. Now they’re old and grey, but their eyes still light up as they remember when they and the Texas went to war. Joe Heilman of Onalaska Texas was 18 years old when he was assigned to the Texas in 1941 before the war started. He says things got hot and heavy very quickly after Pearl Harbor.
“Well, we patrolled up around Iceland, Norway, Newfoundland, mostly North Atlantic. Of course that’s when the Germans were hitting all our ships up there. Merchant ships, passengers, anything else, Germans were torpedoing it.”
Even in World War Two, the Texas was one of the Navy’s oldest and most reliable battleships. She was everywhere in the world at one time or another — wherever she was needed — supporting invasions of North Africa, Sicily, Italy, Normandy, Iwo Jima and Okinawa. John Eddleman of Houston was on the Texas for most of the war, and he remembers all of them.
“I was on the bridge through all the five invasions. We were in Italy, Sicily, all the Mediterranean, and then we were in the Pacific. And our last invasion was Okinawa.”
Eddleman says of all the invasions, the Normandy invasion on D-Day stands out in his memory because that was where the Texas suffered its only casualties and damage in two wars. After shelling the French coastline and taking a lot of German fire, Eddleman was on the bridge when the ship was hit by a German shore at Cherbourg.
“It just went kablooey and then when I came to I was lying flat on my face on the deck, and my feet was hanging over the edge of a place that had blown out. And there was a guy hanging over that ledge, and he was a quartermaster, and he was of course unconscious. I drug him to safety.”
One crewman was killed and 13 were wounded. They were the only casualties ever suffered on the Texas. The ship’s damage was fixable though, so after some quick repairs in England, the Texas went to the Pacific in late 1944 to support the invasions of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
Paul Rosen of Port Arthur was 17 years old when he lied about his age to join the Navy. He joined the Texas crew on its way to the Pacific, and he was there for weeks of shelling of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. He says at Okinawa the Japanese fought to the last man because it was the last island between there and the Japanese mainland. The Japanese Air Force threw everything it had at them.
“There was over 700 airplanes come in at one time, or so we were told. And one almost hit us, but we got around it. We shot it down before it got to us. We never was hit. No, we never did. We were just lucky.”
James Lamb of Houston says after Okinawa, they all knew the Japanese mainland was next. They also knew that untold numbers of Americans and Japanese would be killed, and to this day he believes dropping the atomic bomb on Japan was the right thing to do at that time.
“If you really want to get on the fighting side of any of these men here who were aboard, just criticize Truman for authorizing the dropping of the atomic bomb. That ended the war and saved the lives of millions of people.”
Julio Zaccagni of Houston is Chairman of the USS Texas Veterans Reunion Committee. Zaccagni served on the Texas from early 1940 till mid 1942. He had been on the Texas for nearly two years when the war started at Pearl Harbor. Zaccagni says he and all the other USS Texas veterans are proud of being part of the greatest war in history, and proud to have served with so many brave men and women.
“Sixteen million people served in the armed forces during World War Two. Sixteen million! So I can’t feel like a privileged person or anything for that, but I was just happy to be there, and I’m happy to have survived it all.”
Julio Zaccagni says it’s not easy watching the number of Texas veterans get smaller practically every day, knowing they will all be gone some day. It’s also sad to see their proud old ship fall into such disrepair because the state doesn’t have enough money to keep it in tip top condition.
“It just amazes me that the thing is still here, really, and there’s not many people who were in the Navy at that time, and served on ships, whose ships are still existing. There are very few of them. It’s kind of an honor, really.”
Zaccagni and his shipmates belong to what some call “The Greatest Generation”. Men and women who came through the worst economic collapse in the country’s history, fought and won a global war against the most brutal dictators in history, and came home to lead the nation through the the country’s greatest period of prosperity. They don’t think of themselves as heroes, or as someone special. They’re just average ordinary people who did what someone had to do, and did it well.
Jim Bell, KUHF, Houston Public Radio News.