The proud history of the USS New Mexico stands front and center at the New Mexico History Museum Jan. 23-May 9, with a special installation and opening event featuring the ship’s commanding officer. A Noble Legacy: The USS “New Mexico” will be displayed in La Ventana Gallery at the museum’s main entrance with photographs from both the battleship New Mexico (BB-40) and its new, namesake submarine, USS New Mexico (SSN-779). Artifacts from the original ship and a short documentary by KNME-TV about BB-40’s dramatic story will also be included.
One of the gems of the show is a scale model of the battleship, begun by former Sandia National Laboratories engineer Cecil Whitson and now being completed by fellow Navy veteran Keith Liotta of Albuquerque.
“Once I saw it, I said, `There’s no way I’m going to let this die,’” Liotta said. “It’s a tremendous piece of work in honor of people who fought for us through the war.”
The model is a hand-crafted, 7½-foot replica of the ship’s 1944 incarnation. Every piece on the model was hand-fabricated by Whitson to scale, including the anchor chain and anti-aircraft guns. When it’s completed, Whitson wants to donate it to the History Museum.
At 1 pm on Sunday, Jan. 23, the museum will host a special event in its auditorium honoring the ship and its crews. CDR George Perez, commanding officer of the SSN-779, and Dick Brown, chairman of the USS New Mexico Commissioning Committee, will speak. The Museum of New Mexico Women’s Board will serve refreshments afterward. (Sundays are free admission to NM residents.)
“The sailors who served onboard New Mexico (BB-40) are truly deserving of the recognition this exhibition provides,” Perez said. “Their legacy will continue to serve both the state and the nation onboard New Mexico (SSN-779) for decades to come.”
In her prime, the USS New Mexico was known as “the Queen of the Fleet,” and her story still commands respect. From her launch in April 1917 (commissioned in 1918) to the end of her service in 1946, she was the finest battleship of the Pacific fleet. Christened with champagne and the waters of the Río Grande, she carried the name of New Mexico through two world wars, fought in fierce combat, and served as a witness to peace.
With the first turbo-electric motor drive, her four propellers allowed her to cruise at 21 knots. She displaced 33,400 tons. Overall, she was 626 feet long and 106 feet wide. Her impressive strength resided in twelve, 14-inch guns, placed on four turrets. She carried 80 anti-aircraft guns as well as sea planes for search and reconnaissance.
Assigned in the 1940s to Pearl Harbor, the ship was deployed to protect our eastern seaboard in mid-1941, thus barely missing the attack on the Hawaiian port. In 1945, during the pre-landing bombardment of Luzon, the ship suffered a hit from a kamikaze plane, killing the commanding officer and 29 crewmen. After repairs at Pearl Harbor, the ship sailed to Okinawa for the invasion and, on May 11, was hit by a kamikaze plane and a bomb. The resulting fire killed 54 men and wounded 119; the remaining crewmen continued to fight. On Sept. 2, 1945, the ship and her crew entered Tokyo Bay to witness Japan’s surrender.
The ship was decommissioned on July 19, 1946, and sold for scrap the next year. For her World War II service, the ship received six battle stars.
One of the Navy’s newest nuclear submarines now carries the name New Mexico and, like her predecessor, she, too, is among the most advanced ships of her class. New Mexico scientists have been instrumental in the development of her nuclear technology. And although her fire power is awesome, perhaps her greatest service is as a silent deterrent to aggression, expressed in her motto, “Defendemos Nuestra Tierra” – We Defend Our Land.
“When the Navy named one of its new fast-attack nuclear submarines after New Mexico, it bestowed a great honor upon our state,” Brown said. “USS New Mexico (SSN-779) is a tribute to all who served onboard our namesake battleship and is a salute to all New Mexicans who have served, and are serving, in our Armed Forces.”
The History Museum’s collections include photographs and documents about BB-40, but the ooh-ah cream of the crop is a 56-piece Tiffany service set, originally commissioned by the state of New Mexico for the ship. Several of the pieces have been on display in the museum’s main exhibition, Telling New Mexico: Stories from Then and Now. Each piece was handcrafted to reflect different aspects of the state’s cultural heritage, with engravings that detail events like Coronado’s expedition and a humidor in the shape of Taos Pueblo.
Strange as it might seem for two deep-ocean ships to be named for a desert state, the fact is, they aren’t alone. Since statehood, New Mexico has lent the names of its cities, towns, tribes, rivers and regions to Navy ships. We’ll close this post with an appropriately military maneuver. Roll call!
USS New Mexico (BB-40)
USS New Mexico (SSN-779)
USS Alamogordo (ARDM-2)
USS Albuquerque (PF-7)
USS Albuquerque (SSN-706)
USS Gallup (PF-47)
USS Los Alamos (AFDB-7)
USS Santa Fe (CL-60)
USS Santa Fe (SSN-763)
USS Tucumcari (PGH-2)
USS Bernalillo County (LST-306)
USS Catron (APA-71)
USS Eddy County (LST-759)
USS Hidalgo (AK-189)
USS Sandoval (APA-194)
USS Torrance (AKA-76)
USS Valencia (AKA-81)
USS Acoma (SP-1228)
USS Apache (1889)
USS Jicarilla (ATF-104)
USS Navajo (AT-64)
USS Zuni (ATF-95)
Rivers & Regions
USS Caliente (AO-53)
USS Cimarron (AO-22)
USS Cimarron (AO-177)
USS Gila River (LSMR-504)
USNS Pecos (T-AO-197)
USS Rio Grande (AOG-3)
USS Tularosa (AOG-43)
USS White Sands (ARD-20)
Archival photo, above: USS New Mexico in Tokyo Bay, Japan, shortly after the end of World War II, Mount Fujiyama in background; United States Navy Historical Center. Photo courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives, No. 143237.