Inside the Capitol

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

USS New Mexico

SANTA FE – New Mexico lobbied hard to convince the Navy to name its next nuclear submarine the USS New Mexico.
U.S. Rep. Heather Wilson, Sen. Pete Domenici and Gov. Bill Richardson led the political charge, but New Mexico members of the Navy League, who worked on it for two years, under the leadership of Dick Brown, sent hundreds of letters and petitions to the Navy secretary’s office.
Rep. Wilson urged the Navy to select our state because the former USS New Mexico carried a proud history of defending our country. The Navy likes to name its ships after former ships that carry a proud history. It’s good for building spirit.
It was quite appropriate that the USS New Mexico’s proud history defending our country took place in the Pacific during World War II, where more than 1,800 members of the New Mexico National Guard served and over 900 gave their lives.
There wasn’t much New Mexican about the USS New Mexico. It was a hunk of metal, probably none of which came from our state. And very few of its 1,000-member crew were New Mexicans. Nevertheless, the naming of ships has always carried a special importance for states.
The attachment of Arizonans to the USS Arizona has been amazing. When a new state capitol building was erected in Phoenix, the old capitol became a huge USS Arizona museum, even though it had little to do with the people of Arizona.
The USS Arizona and New Mexico were Battle Ship Nos. 39 and 40, honoring the nation’s two newest states and were authorized shortly after our states entered the union. Although New Mexico was admitted a little over a month before Arizona, somehow Arizona beat us in getting the next ship name.
The Arizona was launched at the New York Navy Yard in June 1915. A few months later, the keel of the New Mexico was laid. In the intervening period, an upgraded battleship was designed, which became known as the New Mexico class.
It was launched in April 1917, and was sponsored by Miss Margaret C. de Baca, who had been selected by her father, Gov. Ezequiel C. de Baca, our second governor, before his death, two months earlier.
Soon after, the New Mexico was chosen as the flagship of our newly-organized Pacific Fleet. When war in the Pacific threatened in 1940, her base became Pearl Harbor. But in mid-1941, activity became even hotter in the Atlantic, protecting our Eastern seaboard.
And that is how the New Mexico missed the attack at Pearl Harbor. Following the December 7 attack, she was recalled to the Pacific and with her New Mexico-class sister ships, the Idaho and the Mississippi, were the primary source of surface defense of our West Coast.
By the summer of 1942, Pearl Harbor had been repaired and the United States was ready for action in the Pacific. The New Mexico’s first action was in the Gilbert Islands, followed by the Marshall Islands, the Solomons and the Marianas.
Then came the retaking of the Philippines. The pre-landing bombardment of Luzon began on January 6, 1945, perhaps appropriately, the state of New Mexico’s 33rd birthday. The sky was full of kamikaze planes. A suicide hit on her bridge killed the commanding officer and 29 others, with 87 injured. The remaining crew made emergency repairs and her guns remained in action until our troops got ashore on January 9th.
After repairs at Pearl Harbor, she headed to Okinawa for the invasion there. This time the enemy threat was from suicide boats. On May 11, she destroyed eight of them. The following evening, the New Mexico was attacked by two kamikazes. One plunged into her. The other hit her with its bomb.
In the resulting fires, 54 men were killed and 119 wounded, but she continued to fight. On May 28, she departed for repairs in the Philippines to be readied for the invasion of Japan. On August 15, while sailing toward Okinawa, she learned of the war’s end. On September 2, she entered Tokyo Bay to witness Japan’s surrender.
That is a proud history to be passed on to the next USS New Mexico.


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