SAN JACINTO, Texas -- Step aboard the USS Texas, and follow the flashlight's beam into history. Down plunging stairways, through silent corridors dark as midnight, past lifeless steam engines and a sepulchral radio room, Paul S. McCann, U.S. Navy, retired, leads the way. This is the old battleship's tour of tours, and what it reveals only a few have seen.
"When the Texas was commissioned," says McCann, "it was the most powerful ship on the face of the planet. It fought for our freedoms. It was slated to be decommissioned three times, and each time it got a new lease on life. It's the last dreadnought-style ship we have, and it should be preserved."
On this mild fall afternoon, McCann, the Battleship Texas Foundation's director of overnight education programs, is leading a preview "hard hat" tour of the vessel's rarely seen lower decks. Beginning Oct. 20, First Texas Volunteers, a foundation-related group that works to restore the vessel, will launch a series of extended tours open to the public.
Stops will include areas in which ammunition was stored and readied for transport to the Texas' 5- and 14-inch guns, the boiler room for the ship's twin, four-cylinder steam engines, the pilot house, the No. 1 turret and other areas normally off limits to battleship visitors.
Repairs next spring
The three-hour tours will mark the first time since this summer's series of debilitating leaks that these remote areas will be accessible to the public. Starting next spring, the ship, managed by the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife, will undergo about $29 million in repairs, primarily to replace rusted internal structures.
Plans to display the vessel in dry berth have been put on hold until sufficient money is raised. The battleship foundation is poised to begin a campaign to raise the $30 to $50 million needed for such an exhibit.
With surprises around virtually every corner, the hard hat tour's incidental sights arguably are as intriguing as its designated stops. Wending their way through a maze of corridors deep in the ship's belly, visitors will happen upon panels of gauges, their needles frozen for generations, and snake nests of wires dangling from the walls.
At one point in McCann's version of the tour, visitors stumble onto room filled with 1940s-era tabletop fans in various states of disassembly. Elsewhere, scores of wheel-shaped valve handles await calls to service that will never come.
The mind's eye can envision the Texas' World War II complement of almost 2,000 seamen, about twice the number for which the ship was designed, scrambling to battle assignments up the ship's narrow steel stairways, most pitched at about 50-degree angles.
Not for faint of heart
Tour visitors will be required to negotiate the same stairways, albeit at a more leisurely pace. "If you have difficulty climbing ladders, are afraid of heights or have claustrophobia," warns a tour flier, "this tour may not be for you."
At many places, visitors will see evidence of severe rust resulting from the nearly two decades that lower compartments were flooded to improve the vessel's stability in its San Jacinto Battleground berth.
Visitors may have trouble shaking a feeling that they have blundered into a time warp. The Texas generates an almost palpable sense that the sailors will be returning soon, that the engines, capable of generating 28,000 horsepower, are seconds from resuming their thrum.
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. It was the first battleship to launch an airplane; the first to mount anti-aircraft guns. The first battleship to become a permanent museum and to receive a National Historic Landmark designation, the Texas has been at its San Jacinto berth since 1948.
50 days in ammo room
In McCann's tour, visitors pass former coal-storage rooms converted into sleeping quarters and an area near the engines in which sailors hung their clothes to dry.
Among stops are the forward ammo handling room where scores of seamen were charged with loading shells and 104-pound bags of powder into elevators that carried them to gun crews.
During the 50-plus-day Battle of Okinawa, ammo crews never left their stations.
In the main radio room, about a dozen tube-powered sets line shelves set into the walls. Swivel chairs designed for functionality, not comfort, are bolted to the floor.
It was here that Navy operators communicated with their Allied counterparts and monitored enemy transmissions. Still in the officers' cubicle is a safe that contained a book to decipher codes.
McCann points to a black, battered Underwood typewriter of 1930s vintage. "We had a former sailor tell us he was sitting right at this typewriter when word arrived of victory in Europe," he says.
Although the hard hat tours greatly will expand the portion of the ship visitors will see, most of the vessel -- 573 feet from bow to stern -- will remain off limits.
Even McCann, more familiar with the Texas than most, admits much of the warship is a mystery.
"There are about 700 compartments on this battleship," McCann says. "I couldn't tell you what three-fourths of them are all about."