USS New Mexico (BB-40)

Thus far, there have been two ships named the USS New Mexico, a battleship and a nuclear submarine.  The earliest ship by this name was BB-40, roughly falling in the last one third of a line of about 65 conventional (BB) battleships built from around 1890 to around 1943.  They were almost all named for one of the 48 contiguous states.  There were some duplications where the names were used more than once, if an earlier battleship had been destroyed, thus accounting for the 65 hull numbers that were completed.  Another half dozen ships were authorized but not completed in this class of vessels.

Within the battleship class, there were subclasses indicating changes from previous designs.  The subclasses carried the name of the first ship to be completed and the New Mexico was the first of three ships in the New Mexico subclass, the other two being the Mississippi (BB-41) and the Idaho (BB-42).  None of the three New Mexico class ships have been preserved, as all were scrapped at the end of their useful lives.

ussnewmexico

(Image credit: maritimequest.com)

Originally designated to be called the USS California, that name reassigned to BB-44, construction of the New Mexico was authorized by Congress in June 1914.  Construction began around 1915 and was completed in April 1917.  The christening was attended by the daughter of the late Governor Esquivel Cabeza de Baca, Miss Margaret C. de Baca.  The actual christening ceremony included the smashing of a bottle of champagne on the keel of the ship.  The ceremony also included christening her with water from the Rio Grande.

Years later, Miss C. de Baca was interviewed by a Colorado newspaper long after she had married and raised a family.  She recalled the events of that day.  She had been born in 1895 in Las Vegas, New Mexico and had been educated as a teacher at New Mexico Normal, now known as New Mexico Highlands University.  Her father had recently died in office shortly after his election as governor.  Her appointment to serve in the ceremony was made by his predecessor, William McDonald.  She remembered details like the champagne splashing back on her dress and also recalled being congratulated after the ceremony by future president Franklin D. Roosevelt, then serving as Secretary of the Navy.

The New Mexico was built at an estimated cost of $21 million in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, which is located on the east river south of Manhattan Island between the Manhattan Bridge and the Williamsburg Bridge.  The ship was officially commissioned into the US Navy fleet in May 1918.

The New Mexico was 624 feet (190 m) long, 97 feet (30 m) wide and displaced 32,000 tons.  She was powered by four shaft GE steam turbines connected to turbo-electric transmission and was the first ship so constructed.  Her power was generated by 9 oil-fired boilers that allowed her to reach a top speed of 21 knots.  She was armed with a main battery of twelve 14 inch 50 caliber guns, fourteen 5 inch 51 caliber guns, eight 3 inch 50 caliber guns and two Mark 15 torpedo tubes.  She ran with a crew of 1,084 men.

Shortly after her commissioning and joining the Atlantic fleet, Germany fell, effectively ending World War I.  After escorting the fleet carrying President Wilson to sign the Treaty of Versailles to mark the end of WWI, the New Mexico began its peacetime service in the Atlantic and followed that by serving elsewhere, including acting as the flagship for the Pacific Fleet.  She was updated and overhauled in the Philadelphia Navy Yard from March 1931 to January 1933.  Her turbo-electric drives were replaced with Curtis geared turbines.  8 five inch anti-aircraft guns were added which replaced the 3 inch 50 caliber guns.  She still could reach her former top speed of 21 knots.

She was operating in the Atlantic when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.  Three days later the New Mexico was involved in an accident where she rammed and sank the freighter Oregon off Boston Harbor.  Her official wartime service began after her 5 inch guns were replaced with more anti-aircraft guns in 1942 at the Puget Sound Navy Yard.  From late 1942 to March 1943 she escorted convoys and transpots to the Fiji Islands before serving in the north Pacific attacking Japanese held islands.  After more updates in Puget Sound, she returned to the Pacific for island duty.

In early 1944, she participated in the Marshall Islands invasion folowing that by being involved in the assaults on Tinian, Saipan and Guam to take them back from Japanese control.  She received an overhaul in the late fall of 1944 and then was back on station to take part in the battle to retake the Philippines.  In early January while supporting the battle to regain Luzon, she took a lot of damage from kamikaze including a hit to the bridge, killing the Captain and about 30 others, and wounding another 80.  Though badly disabled, she kept firing her guns in support of the troops were continuing to hit the beaches.

Much of the damage was repaired at Pearl Harbor and she was back on station in time to support the battle to retake Okinawa from the Japanese.  She received further damage from kamikaze aircraft in early May including one direct hit from an aircraft crashing into her and a bomb strike from another.  174 of her crew were killed or wounded in this attack.  The damage was repaired and she was anchored off Saipan when the war ended in August 1945.  She continued to support the efforts to supply the Japanese islands until she returned to the States.

The New Mexico was decommissioned in July 1946, sold for scrap in November 1947 and after some drama with the city, the owner was allowed to scrap her, the Idaho and the Wyoming at Newark, New Jersey.

Her service in World War II earned six battle stars.  There are a number of artifacts that remain from the ship including its silver service and both ship’s bells.  Following her decommissioning, one of its two bells was returned to the State of New Mexico, the acquisition of which was arranged by Governor Thomas Mabry.  The agreement included a portion of the hull that had painted on it a record of enemy planes destroyed and shore installations that she had attacked.  In exchange, the State of New Mexico agreed to pay the transportation cost for the 1,100 pound bell.  The famous bell once was installed on the Plaza in Santa Fe along with a plaque commemorating the ship until it was removed in 1970 in connection with renovation of the square.  The bell was then displayed for a number of years in the Manel Lujan Sr. Building in Santa Fe, before being moved to its final location at the New Mexico History Museum.

MaritimeQuest.com gallery of historic photos of the USS New Mexico

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