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Texas | Columns | "Charley Eckhardt's Texas"

Archie Ludlow

by C. F. Eckhardt
Archie Ludlow was born in Waco in the early part of the last century. His father worked for a cotton firm there. The family was well-to-do. Archie was in elementary school when, in 1910 to 1912, the two newest battleships for the US Navy—the Texas Class, USS Texas and USS New York—were under construction. Money was tight for building battleships, and the Wilson administration in particular, with avowed pacifist William Jennings Bryan as Secretary of State, was reluctant to put money into implements of war.

At the same time, of course, the world was preparing for war. There was an international arms race, particularly at sea, to catch up with the Royal Navy. Britain launched the first completely modern battleship, HMS Dreadnaught, a few years earlier. HMS Dreadnaught was superior to anything afloat at the time.

Subscriptions were taken in Texas—and possibly in New York as well—to “help build the battleships.” In one such subscription school children were asked to contribute one day’s lunch money to help build USS Texas. Archie put in his lunch money. “I think I had a quarter that day,” he told me many years later.

After WW I Archie’s dad was transferred to the Liverpool, England office of his firm. He took his family and they settled into life as a well-to-do English family. Archie was sent to an English ‘public school,’ which in Texas would be an exclusive private school. At school he made friends with an English boy who was fascinated by Archie’s Texas drawl. He took his Texas friend home over ‘the hols’ so his sister could hear how the young Texan talked. Apparently the sister liked Archie’s drawl, and she found she liked the young man who talked that way even more. Eventually she and Archie were married.

Archie’s father-in-law was a blue-water yachtsman. He introduced his new son-in-law to the delights of the practice. The boy from the mud flats of the Brazos took to the sea like he was born to it.

In 1937 war clouds were again gathering over Europe. There was no question there would be war, the only question was when it would begin. The Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve put out a call for competent yachtsmen to take an examination for possible commissioning in the RNVR.

This posed a problem for Archie. England was home. He’d grown up there, married there, his children were English-born. Yet he was still an American citizen. Since the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, formed primarily by American communists with the clandestine backing of Stalin’s USSR to fight Franco’s Falangistas in the Spanish Civil War, joining a foreign armed force could result in loss of US citizenship—and Archie prized his US citizenship. For the record, very few US citizens lost their citizenship if they joined Allied armed forces. Several of the pilots in the Battle of Britain were American volunteers, as were a number of people who joined the Canadian armed forces. Even so, the threat of loss of US citizenship was very real.

Still, to Archie England was home. He took the exam and was commissioned an Ensign in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve—one of the very few Americans and certainly the only native Texan to wear the uniform of the Royal Navy. Come Dunkirk and Archie was there with his yacht, rescuing British, Canadian, and French troops from the beach.

In the meantime USS Texas had become obsolete. However, after December 7, 1941, she was one of the few US battleships still seaworthy. She was, though, completely outmoded. In the military euphemism for such equipment, she was ‘expendable.’ She was relegated to convoy-escort duty in the North Atlantic. Surviving that, she was assigned to the English Channel to aid in covering the Normandy invasion on June 6, 1944.

Late May, 1944. Archie Ludlow, now a Master—the US Navy’s equivalent rank is ‘Lieutenant JG’—was commanding a minesweeper off the Normandy coast. Minesweepers performed an invaluable service, removing sea mines from the invasion path. To do this a minesweeper must sail slowly, in a perfectly straight line. They effectively remove the sea mines, either by detonating them at a safe distance from the ship or by cutting their mooring lines so they will surface, where they can be detonated by rifle fire from the minesweepers’ decks.

The necessary slow speed and precisely-predictable course makes a minesweeper an easy target for artillery batteries ashore. A two-gun battery of heavy guns, well protected behind a concrete revetment, took Archie’s vessel under fire. Two rounds splashed to starboard, then two more to port. The minesweeper had been bracketed. The battery had the range. The third salvo would almost certainly destroy the vessel and its crew.

Out of the early morning mist a huge, bluff-bowed ship—an old Great War type—appeared. Her huge 12-inch guns came down to point blank. The entire English Channel appeared to shudder as she fired a massive broadside. The German guns that, a moment before, had Archie’s minesweeper bracketed, vanished in a cloud of smoke, fire, and steel. Archie turned to his signalman. “What ship is that?” he asked.

The signalman opened his identification book, looking for the number. That she was a US battleship there was no doubt—the numbers on her bow were prefixed with BB, the US Navy’s designation for battleships. In a moment he replied “USS Texas, sir.”

Archie made signal: ‘Thank you.’ As he told me, more than half a century after the incident, “You know, Charley, that quarter had to be the best investment I ever made in my life.”

In his nineties Archie returned to Texas to live. He and his wife settled, for a time, in Seguin. It was there, in Seguin’s First Presbyterian Church, that he and I met and he told me the story of how USS Texas saved his ship and the lives of himself and his crew on that misty May morning in 1944.

Archie is gone now. He never got to visit his old friend. When he went to Houston for the purpose of visiting her, she was undergoing extensive restoration. He regretted he never got the chance to thank the old girl again. All that remains is the story.

For information purposes, USS Texas is the only ‘Dreadnaught’—type battleship still afloat anywhere in the world. HMS Dreadnaught was scrapped, as was USS New York. All other Dreadnaught—type battleships were either sunk during the two World Wars or scrapped after WW I or WW II. Only USS Texas remains, a reminder of a bygone era and a veteran of the two greatest conflicts in world history.
© C. F. Eckhardt
"Charley Eckhardt's Texas"
July 14, 2007 column

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