USS New Mexico Gets a Second Course of Tiffany Plates

2014_CrewInConservationLab-1 We were honored today with a visit by the executive officer and senior crew of the USS New Mexico–out of the deep, on dry land and in the desert that their nuclear submarine is named for. Among the reasons for the visit was to trade out two dessert plates from the New Mexico History Museum’s luscious 56-piece Tiffany silver service that have ridden on the boat for the last four years.

Made in 1918 by Tiffany & Co. for use aboard the submarine’s predecessor, the fabled USS New Mexico battleship, the set came to the museum in the 1960s after that boat was decommissioned and after seeing brief use aboard the USS Midway and USS Bon Homme Richard. Since 2010, the submarine has had two plates bearing finely etched drawings of New Mexico scenes, the Santa Fe Trail and Taos Pueblo. They’re just two of the reminders that New Mexicans have placed aboard the submarine, including extensive Southwest-style decor courtesy of the volunteer USS New Mexico Committee, Navy League.

“One of the keys (of the Tiffany plates) is having the link between the ship and the home state,” said LCDR Craig Litty (that’s him at the far left in the photo above). “It makes a connection to remind us of what we do all the time. We’re on a warship. It can be tough to remember what we’re working for. It’s one of the key things to keeping us grounded. Between these plates and what the committee sends us, it keeps us very close. This is my third attack submarine, and it has the best relationship with its home state.”

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USS New Mexico’s Bell Finds a Permanent Home

By the time the USS New Mexico battleship was decommissioned in 1946, her bells had rung out alarms of attacks and tolled the grief felt by those who survived as they buried at sea the shipmates who had given their lives. The “Queen of the Fleet,” commissioned in 1918 and christened with both champagne and the waters of the Rio Grande, had served as the finest battleship of the Pacific fleet and endured attacks by kamikazes and bombers. For her World War II service, the ship received six battle stars and is still recalled with awe — even though she was sold for scrap in 1947.

The story might have ended there but for those bells — one of which arrived on Friday, Nov. 16, at the New Mexico History Museum after a circuitous post-war life. That part of the story goes back to New Mexico Gov. Thomas Mabry, who began working in 1947 on obtaining one of the ship’s two bells.

His correspondence with Secretary of the Navy John L. Sullivan reflects the state’s desire to spare the bell from the scrapyard. Sullivan shared the goal, but it was a weighty one — 1,100 pounds, according to a Dec. 22, 1947, letter from the Navy chief.

“It was the practice of the Navy to outfit some of the older battleships with two bells, and the U.S.S. NEW MEXICO was so equipped,” he wrote. “It would give me much pleasure to donate the bell of the U.S.S. NEW MEXICO to you on behalf of the State of New Mexico, but before doing so, there are two conditions which must be fulfilled. The first is that Congress must approve all donations. … The second condition is that the State of New Mexico must agree to defray all expenses incidental to packing and shipping.”

Our correspondence file includes Mabry’s request to obtain the portion of the ship’s bulkhead that held a painted record of how many Japanese planes and shore installations were destroyed by the ship’s guns. If the letters are correct, the bulkhead made it to New Mexico, but we’ve been unable to trace where it went. We do, however, know what happened to the bell.

In 1948, Gov. Mabry and Mayor Frank Ortiz officiated at a dedication ceremony as the bell was placed on the Santa Fe Plaza. (The photo above was taken at the event by Robert H. Martin. Palace of the Governors Photo Archives 41320.) It stood on the Plaza for nearly 30 years. An early 1970s Plaza renovation forced its removal, but the Manuel Lujan Sr. building in the state’s South Capitol Complex gladly took possession of it. It hung below a stairway near the building’s vending-machine area until a recent renovation there forced yet another move.

This time, we were ready. We have the storage space, we have a small exhibition dedicated to the battleship and its nuclear-submarine namesake, and we have staffers who feel an emotional tie to the ship and its mates.

“It represents to much,” said Tom Leech, director of the Palace Press and curator of our lobby-area exhibit, A Noble Legacy: The USS New Mexico. “When I think about what that bell has been through — it’s rung general alarms when the ship was under attack. It rang when those guys were buried at sea.”

(To learn more about the ship’s ordeals and heroism, check out this mini-documentary, USS New Mexico BB40: The Drinan Diary, produced by the museum and Michael Kamins of KNME-TV in Albuquerque.)

Getting the bell delivered to our loading dock was one thing. Figuring out how to get it to our lower-level almost-hermetically-sealed collections vault was another.

First, staff members eyeballed it. Warily.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then, four of our burliest guys tried to move it …

 

 

 

 

 

… but couldn’t even budge it.

 

 

Finally, we resorted to good old hydraulics.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As for what happened to the second bell, we know that the University of New Mexico acquired it, possibly with the help of the Alpha Phi Omega fraternity, but we aren’t certain where it is. Outside the Student Union Building? At the football stadium? Inside the ROTC building? If you know, drop us a line. (And if you know what happened to its clapper, which our records showed “disappeared, mysteriously, during the early 1970s,” we’d be interested in that as well.)

Our hope is to put our bell on display as soon as we polish off some other priorities. One popular suggestion is to place it in the Palace Courtyard. We’ll let you know when that happens. In the meantime, we’re pleased and proud that an important part of New Mexico’s heritage is sharing quarters with so many other artifacts that tell the stories of who we are.

 

History Museum/KNME Documentaries Take Two Steps Forward

The 15 mini-documentaries produced by KNME for the New Mexico History Museum have two pieces of good news to share.

First, Executive Producer Michael Kamins recently learned that one of them, USS New Mexico BB40: The Drinan Diary, has been nominated for a Rocky Mountain Emmy in the Historic/Cultural-News Single Story category. The awards will be announced Oct. 15 in Phoenix.

Second, nine of the videos now have online curricula attached to me, making them a nifty tool for classroom teachers looking for new ways to make history come to life.

“Education is central to the New Mexico History Museum’s mission,” said Dr. Frances Levine, director of the museum. “We created these mini-documentaries for classrooms, home-schoolers, book groups and anyone who has a curiosity about our heritage. The films supply them with facts, and do so in a way that engages their emotions.”

The Moments in Time project began in 2009, when KNME and the History Museum won a $147,000 grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services to underwrite their production. Working closely with Levine and curators throughout the museum, Kamins immersed himself in maps, artifacts, archival photos, and scholarship of the state’s history.

Kamins, an award-winning cinematographer, also produced the movies that show in the museum’s main exhibition, Telling New Mexico: Stories from Then and Now. They include a history of the Santa Fe Trail projected onto the canvas of a covered wagon; Setting the Stage, blending New Mexico landscapes with the words of noted authors; and pieces on Route 66, hippies and Tierra Amarilla firebrand Reies Lopez Tijerina.  Kamins is no stranger to the Emmy stage, most recently picking up a 2010 statue for his work on the Colores documentary, Painting Taos.

“Being nominated is a great way to honor the terrific collaboration we have with the New Mexico History Museum,” he said. “They brought to the project a remarkable understanding of New Mexico’s history and have a genuine enthusiasm for sharing the rich history of New Mexico. The Emmy nomination is also a great way to acknowledge the talent and ambition of former-UNM student Ryan Montaño, who was the co-producer on this program.”

“Working on the USS New Mexico documentary was such an extraordinary opportunity,” Montaño said. “Not only did the project help me garner a new sense of pride for my home state of New Mexico, but it helped me to understand and feel why the individuals of WWII, the era in which my grandparents lived, are considered America’s `Greatest Generation.’ What an opportunity!”

Some of New Mexico’s top historians and performers contributed their talents to the Moments in Time productions, including actor Dean Stockwell; flamenco artist Maria Benitez; famed New Mexico santero José Ramon Lopez; Dr. Estevan Rael-Gálvez, director the National Hispanic Cultural Center; historian and author Paul Hutton; and Torrance County historian Morrow Hall.

All of the films are available by clicking here. Lesson plans for the remaining videos are in the works. Go directly to the documentaries that have curricula by clicking on these links, then on “lesson plans.”

Buffalo Soldiers in New Mexico
The Estancia Press
In Her Own Voice: Doña Teressa Aguilera y Roche and Intrigue in the Palace of the Governors, 1649-1662
The Last Hurdle: El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro
Rough Riders
New Mexico’s Segesser Hide Paintings
Tesoros de Devoción
USS New Mexico BB40: The Drinan Diary
Fashioning New Mexico: Victorian Secrets

Honoring Those Who Served – and Still Serve – on the USS “New Mexico”

Gunnery personnel aboard the USS New Mexico, 1942-45? US Navy photograph, courtesy of the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives.

Gunnery personnel aboard the USS New Mexico (1942-45?). US Navy photograph, courtesy of the Palace of the Governors Photo Archives.

They were young then, boys, really. Serving aboard what was then the most technologically advanced battleship in the US fleet, they saw some of the worst of World War II – and were there for the final surrender of Japan.

On Sunday, Jan. 23, the New Mexico History Museum paid tribute to “the Queen of the Fleet,” and to the men (and, soon, women) who serve on the new USS New Mexico, now fittingly the Navy’s most technologically advanced nuclear submarine.

With the opening of A Noble Legacy: The USS New Mexico, 270-some people came to the museum to view the lobby-area installation and hear from dignitaries – among them, George Perez, commander of the submarine USS New Mexico (SSN 779).

It was a day when the most honored people in the house were men in blue caps. Some of them were balding, some were gray and some were young(ish). Military bearing was the order of the day, and the phrase, “Thank you for your service,” was heard again and again.

Ret. Chief Warrant Officer George Smith, who served on the USS New Mexico (BB 40) battleship in World War II, traveled from his home near Philadelphia to speak during the opening ceremony. He recounted with humor his efforts to become a submarine man and choked up not only himself but everyone in the auditorium with how closely he came to joining the many men who lost their lives in World War II.

“My tenure on the New Mexico was one of the finest tours I had in the Navy,” he said. “That was the white-hat Navy. When they went ashore they were neat and clean, and they weren’t in the Zumwalt uniform.”

(In the 1970s, then-Chief of Naval Operations Elmo Zumwalt attempted to encourage more enlistments by ditching the WW2-era Navy blues for a more casual look. Met with derision, it lasted only five years. Author Paul Fussell writes of the switch here.)

“There were no baseball caps worn with the bill in the back,” Smith said. “That didn’t happen. The New Mexico was a clean ship. If you were one minute late coming back from liberty, you stayed aboard for two weeks. They knew what the rules were and they followed it. I’m proud to have served two years on that ship.”

GeorgeSmithSigningPosterThe audience gave Smith a standing ovation and, after the event, clustered around him for autographs on posters of the submarine.

Cmdr. Perez, his bearing both dignified and genial, regaled the audience with details of his new ship, which is running through trials now and will join the Navy fleet in late 2012.

“She is the most powerful warship ever built in the history of the US Navy, probably second only to the BB 40 – which isn’t bad,” he said to laughter.

“We are New Mexico,” he said. “If you descended on that warship today, you would know. We are constantly working to continue to build that relationship. We prefer to have the Land of Enchantment anywhere we can get the pieces inside.”

That includes Southwestern-themed curtains that close across the crewmates’ bunks, provided to the ship by members of the Navy League Council of New Mexico, the group that lobbied for five years to have the sub named for the state.

Clearly proud of his ship, Cmdr. Perez delivered a tantalizing offer to those at the event: “Everyone here has an opportunity to get on board. Just show up and show me a New Mexico driver’s license, and you’ll get on board.”

But then, he noted, it is currently at home port in Groton, Ct., where “there’s about three or four feet of snow on the ground, so this isn’t the time to do it.”

PerezMurphyPointingToFigureAs for bringing it to our high-desert state, Perez noted, “There’s no port to pull into here. I did get offered a Lexus if I could navigate up the Rio Grande.”

(As a consolation prize to the Lexus, museum Director Dr. Frances Levine presented Cmdr. Perez and Chief of Board Eric Murphy with copies of the book Telling New Mexico: A New History and jars of History Museum red-chile sauce, prepared by the legendary Shed restaurant in Santa Fe.)

Perez and Murphy stayed after the event to speak with visitors, and Perez was clearly charmed by one particular aspect of the installation. Facing walls of a hallway are bedecked with silhouettes of the two ships at 1/20th scale. The exhibition’s graphics designer, Natalie Baca, added a last-minute detail to the SSN 779 silhouette: An image of Perez himself taken from a photograph she found on the internet and placed on the submarine to show its scale relative to people. Perez and Murphy proudly posed next to it for family photographs snapped by their wives.

FamilyModelA highlight of the installation is a scale model of BB 40 begun 30 years ago by Navy veteran and Albuquerque resident Cecil Whitson. Fellow Navy veteran Keith Liotta and the Albuquerque Scale Modelers Club added final touches after an illness stopped Whitson’s work, and all day, families with children, Navy veterans and model-building aficionados clustered around it, admiring the intricacy of Whitson’s work. Some of the most enthusiastic applause at the opening ceremony was when Levine asked the audience to extend its “collective gratitude” to Whitson.

The early plan for the installation included one of BB 40’s helms, now ensconced at the University of New Mexico and at the Montoya Building in Santa Fe.  “But they’re built into the fabric of the buildings,” Levine said, “and demolition wasn’t in our budget.”

What is included are archival and contemporary photographs of both ships and a video produced by KNME, USS New Mexico BB40: The Drinan Diary. You can catch it by clicking on the link, but the experience of seeing it on the auditorium’s big screen provided the emotional highlight of the day.

“What museums do matters,” Levine told attendees. “We give voice to people who lived in different centuries in times of peace, in times of war.”

On Sunday, we also put faces to those stories and were honored to be a place where Navy men and women could make new connections with one another. As a gift to those who continue to serve aboard USS New Mexico, we’ll close this post with a collection of photos to let them virtually attend the event. We wish them calm waters and extend an offer of our own: If you’re ever in Santa Fe, we’ll meet you at The Shed.

Collections Manager Wanda Edwards with a pre-WW2, sharkskin-handled sword.

Collections Manager Wanda Edwards with a pre-WW2, sharkskin-handled sword.

Visitors at Cecil Whitson's model of the BB 40.

Visitors at Cecil Whitson's model of the BB 40.

Cmdr. George Perez and Ret. CWO George Smith at the opening ceremony.

Cmdr. George Perez and Ret. CWO George Smith at the opening ceremony.

Former BB 40 crewmate LaVell Richins shared a scrapbook of his service, brought from his home in Utah.

Former BB 40 crewmate LaVell Richins shared a scrapbook of his service, brought from his home in Utah.

Two Navy veterans make a connection at the event.

Two Navy veterans make a connection.

Young visitors checking out parts of a 1920s era uniform worn aboard BB 40.

Young visitors check out parts of a 1920s era uniform worn aboard BB 40.

Ret. CWO George Smith pointing to the place on the BB 40 model where he was stationed during WW2.

Ret. CWO George Smith points to the place on the BB 40 model where he was stationed during WW2.

Cmdr. George Perez greeting visitors in the New Mexico History Museum lobby.

Cmdr. George Perez greets visitors in the New Mexico History Museum lobby.

Cmdr. Perez with BB 40 veterans James Kennedy (from left), George Smith and LaVell Richins.

Cmdr. Perez with BB 40 veterans James Kennedy (from left), George Smith and LaVell Richins