The World’s first electric battleship: USS New Mexico
By Janice Dunnahoo
Special to the Daily Record
How many are aware that we had a U.S. Navy battleship named after New Mexico?
The name of the battleship was — of course — the USS New Mexico (BB-40) and she was in service from 1918 to 1946.
The USS New Mexico was the lead ship of three battleships, though her first name was California in 1915, she was renamed a year later to New Mexico.
New Mexico was launched from the New York Navy Yard on April 23, 1917, with the daughter of the then-late governor, Margaret De Baca, present who had sponsored the ship. New Mexico was commissioned on May 20, 1918.
The USS New Mexico was the first ship in the world with a turbo-electric transmission, which helped her reach a cruising speed of 10 knots, or 12 mph. After completing additional training, New Mexico escorted the ship that carried President Woodrow Wilson to Brest, France to sign the Treaty of Versailles.
During the interwar period, she was used in repeated exercises with the Pacific and Atlantic Fleets as a trial ship for PID controllers, which are named after the Proportional, Integral and Derivative control modes they have. She underwent a major modernization between March 1931 and January 1933.
An article in the Alamogordo News, dated May 24, 1945, talks about some of her action during World War II.
“USS New Mexico Playing a Gallant Action Against The Japs
“Wise in the ways of combat, the 27-year-old battleship USS New Mexico, whose World War II log tells of her participation in many of the major Pacific actions since mid-1943, has recovered from her first battle damage and once more has assumed a leading role with the United States fleet as it presses toward the Japanese homeland.
“Disclosure of the extensive operations of the famed ‘Queen’ of America’s peacetime Navy from the date of her appearance in Alaskan waters until she was forced into temporary retirement when hit at Lingayen Gulf (Philippines) was made today with the Navy Department announcement that the veteran ship now is under command of Captain John M. Haines, USN, of Coronado, California — the second San Diego area officer to be assigned that task since the outbreak of the war.
“When the New Mexico was transferred from the Atlantic fleet to the Pacific, she came through the Panama Canal in time to cover assault forces, which made the Kiska landings in the Aleutians. Shortly after that, she was directed to the Central and South Pacific, with another San Diegan, Captain Ellis Mark Zacharias USN, now Chief of Staff and Aide to the Commandant of the Aleutian Naval District, as her skipper.
“Captain Zacharias lead the gallant old ship through some of her most difficult assignments starting off with the recapture of bases in the Gilbert Islands. The ‘Queen’ followed up by joining the operation, which led to the conquest of the Marshalls in January and February of 1944.
“During the latter action, the New Mexico was assigned to bombard Leyte Island in the Kwajalein Atoll, and a day later, United States troops landed on Kwajalein Island itself. During the bombardment, the veteran warship achieved the distinction of being the first battleship ever to enter Kwajalein Lagoon.
“Before the end of February, two other Atolls in the Marshalls, Maloelap and Wotje, had felt the wrath of her big guns.
“Orders next took the ‘Queen’ into the South Pacific where she and other ships struck at Kavienf and from there, she moved up into the Marianas to hit Tinian and Guam for three weeks up to and including D-day, and then remained in the area firing almost continuously for three weeks until the island was secured.
“With a year of heavy work behind her, the New Mexico returned to the West Coast for overhaul and installation of new guns, at which time captain Zacharias was detached and succeeded by Captain Robert W. Fleming, of Alexandria, Va.
“It was Captain Fleming who commanded the battleship when he returned to the war helping to secure Leyte and Samar and then supporting the Mindoro landing. He was on the port navigating bridge when a Jap bomb struck during the Lingayen Gulf landings on Luzon and was one of 30 killed on board in the attack.
“Despite the blow, the gallant old vessel continued to maintain battle efficiency and until the beaches were secure five days later she kept firing. “Sent back to Pearl Harbor for repairs, she was idle only a month when Captain Haines as her skipper, she again added her guns to the Navy’s Pacific offensive.
“In peace as in war, the New Mexico has performed with distinction through a history bridging two major conflicts. It was her extraordinary consistency in capturing fleet honors for gunnery, engineering, navigation and battle efficiency which earned for her the title of ‘Queen.’ Under fire, she has continued to maintain that same proficiency.
“Paul Irvnie Jr. of Alamogordo is on the USS New Mexico.”
According to Naval records, New Mexico was decommissioned in Boston on July 19, 1946, and struck from the Naval Vessel Register on Feb. 25, 1947. The ship was sold for scrapping to the Lipsett Division of Luria Bros in November 1947, but attempts to bring the ship to Newark, New Jersey for breaking up were met by resistance from city officials. City fireboats were sent to block the passage of the battleship and the Lipsett tugboats, while the United States Coast Guard declared intentions to guarantee safe passage. The Under Secretary of the Navy Department was sent to defuse what the media began to call the “Battle of Newark Bay,” with the city agreeing to the breaking up of New Mexico and two other battleships before scrapping operations in Newark Bay ceased, and Lipsett under instructions to dismantle the ships in a set timeframe or suffer financial penalties. Scrapping commenced in November and was completed by July 1948.
Editor: The reason that the city elders were so against having New Mexico in its bay was that the breaking down would turn it into a junkyard, as they said in several press releases at the time. A $70,000,000 project was jeopardized that was planned to improve the seaport and the airport.
Another article in the Albuquerque Journal dated Dec. 3, 1947, titled “State Can Get Two USS New Mexico Bells,” reads as follows:
“Santa Fe, December 2 — It appeared today that New Mexico will have two bells from the USS New Mexico which would solve Governor Mabry’s distribution problem since both the University of New Mexico and the local American Legion post have asked for a bell.
“The governor today received a letter from Captain John P. Heffernan, curator for the Navy Department, advising him that New Mexico would have the USS New Mexico’s 1,100-pound bell if Congress did not disapprove and if the state could pay for having it shipped out here.
“The state already has an 800-pound bronze USS New Mexico bell in the capital basement.
“The governor had written asking the Navy how the state could get the bell currently on the battleship and for more information on the bell already in the state’s possession.
“Heffernan explained that it had been customary to equip battleships in years past with two bells, that the USS New Mexico was so supplied and that the bell in the basement presumably was one of the USS New Mexico’s two bells at the time of its commissioning.
“Heffernan said he would request Congress to approve the donation and that if no unfavorable action was taken within the next 30 days’ continuous session, the bell was New Mexico’s for the shipping charges.”
Janice Dunnahoo is chief archivist at the Historical Society for Southeast New Mexico Archives. She can be reached at 575-622-1176 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.