Compiled by Dick Brown, Chairman of the Navy League New Mexico Council’s committee that supports New Mexico’s new namesake warship, the fast-attack nuclear submarine USS New Mexico (SSN-779). Without the assistance of Patty Hamm, this project would not have been possible.
This is the story of an Idaho sailor assigned to Battleship NEW MEXICO. His name is Gilbert Rice. In May 1940, he and two high school buddies joined the Navy. After basic training in San Diego, Gilbert’s pay was raised to $27 a month. He and two of his buddies received orders to report to quarter-century old battleships at Pearl Harbor, two of them to USS NEW MEXICO (BB-40), the other to USS ARIZONA (BB-39).
It was not long before Gilbert was assigned as “traman” for gun turret #2 where he would operate hydraulic lifts to guide one-ton shells from an arsenal to the breaches of the 14-inch barrels. NEW MEXICO sailed to Bremerton for an overhaul and then Long Beach for some R&R before returning to Hawaii in December. It was still a year before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
In April 1941, world events were coming to an explosive head. Admiral Kimmel was ordered to release three battleships, including USS NEW MEXICO (BB-40), the carrier YORKTOWN (CV-5), four cruisers, 17 destroyers, and 16 auxiliaries to the Atlantic where the situation was critical in preventing Britain from falling to the Germans. These ships, a significant portion of Kimmel’s fleet, would add to the safety of Atlantic convoys supplying Britain. NEW MEXICO’s participation in these neutrality patrols is the reason she did not suffer the same fate as ARIZONA.
Having completed gunnery training and tactical exercises, NEW MEXICO left Pearl Harbor on May 20th. As she cleared the harbor, word about her destination was blasted over the speaker system. “Now hear this, we will not return to Pearl Harbor. We are headed for Panama and the US East Coast.”
NEW MEXICO transited the canal at night and after stops at Guantanamo, Norfolk and Newport, Rhode Island, she commenced a series of neutrality patrols in the U-boat-infested North Atlantic. The old warship spent the summer patrolling the shipping lanes, strewn with floating debris from sunken cargo ships, as part of Task Force 15, with the only breaks in the action being port calls in Reykjavik, Iceland and Argentia, Newfoundland. By early October, her mission ended and she was bound for Casco Bay (Portland), Maine for gunnery practice. In November she made a port call in Halifax, Nova Scotia and put in at Boston on the 25th to load ammunition. By December 1st, she was back in Casco Bay for more gunnery practice.
Meanwhile the Nazis rode roughshod over Europe and the idea of salvaging world peace grew less and less feasible. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. One-third of the Navy had been blasted out of action and the United States was drawn into WWII.
Side Note: When Gilbert left the Queen in October 1944, he was a Shipfitter 1st Class Petty Officer. He completed six years of active duty and returned to Idaho but stayed in the Reserves until he reached the 40-year mark. In 1980, he retired as a Warrant Officer. On the morning of May 24, 2012, just as the first rays of sunshine came over the mountains near Boise, Gilbert passed away. He was 91 years old. His family and friends were by his side. He proudly wore his honorary USS NEW MEXICO Admiral hat as he lay under Old Glory on the stretcher that took him off his farm for the last time. During the months preceding his death, Gilbert’s close friend, Patty Hamm, had helped him sort through boxes of Navy memorabilia. Although Gilbert was nearly blind, the two managed to identify many old photos of Gilbert’s time onboard NEW MEXICO. Collectively, these photos provide a fabulous look into shipboard life under battle conditions in the South Pacific.
After the Japanese attack, NEW MEXICO rushed back to Norfolk to get ready for battle in the Pacific Theatre. With the nation now at war, she was running under blackout conditions on December 10th – escorted by three destroyers, zigzagging in formation and all operating without running lights. Gilbert was asleep in his cot and was suddenly thrown across the deck. Men were flying everywhere. NEW MEXICO had rammed the new freighter SS OREGON, also running without lights, off Nantucket. NEW MEXICO had taken evasive action and stayed on the scene an hour after the collision. OREGON, with a crew of 42, decided to make a run for Boston but sank enroute with the loss of 17 men.
NEW MEXICO arrived in Norfolk where her collision damage was repaired. Now in peak fighting condition, she departed Hampton Roads on January 6, 1942, her namesake’s 30th anniversary of statehood, and passed through the canal on the night of January 11th and entered the Pacific.
NEW MEXICO entered San Francisco Bay while carrier battles in the Coral Sea and at Midway decisively blunted enemy thrusts. For the next year, she operated out of Pearl Harbor, lending her weight to the final consolidation of the embattled Solomon Islands and screening thin-skinned escort carriers during the capture of Guadalcanal. By then, Gilbert had switched from gun crew to the shipfitter’s shop.
the Solomons, Cape Esperance on Guadalcanal to the left, Savo Island to the right, between them, the “Slot”,
and graveyard of ships and men.
Officer pollywogs become shellbacks, the hard way to cross the equator.
In May 1943, Rear Admiral Robert M. Griffin, Commander Battleship Division Three, embarked with his staff, precipitating much “scuttlebutt” among the crew as to the Queen’s next assignment. NEW MEXICO was dispatched to help oust the Japanese from the Aleutians. She sailed into Adak’s Kuluk Bay on May 17th to begin her Aleutian campaign. The recapture of Attu and Kiska marked the end of Japanese occupation in Alaska.
RADM Robert M. Griffin being piped aboard NEW MEXICO
NEW MEXICO entered Puget Sound for maintenance and repairs in early September 1943. A month later, she was Hawaii-bound with Captain Ellis Mark Zacharias in command. By October 26th she was back in Pearl Harbor and soon on her way to the South Pacific.
RADM Griffin & Capt Zacharias on the Navigation Bridge
Tarawa and Makin Atolls were targeted in “Operation Galvanic”, our Navy’s push into the Gilbert Islands. In the pre-dawn darkness of November 20th, 1943, Admiral Griffin’s Battleship Division Three unleashed a full-scale bombardment of the Makin ring.
A few days later, our naval forces had assembled off Makin Island. At its center was the carrier escort LISCOME BAY (CVE-56), surrounded by battleships NEW MEXICO (BB-40) and MISSISSIPPI (BB-41), the cruiser BALTIMORE (CA-68) on the left flank, and CORAL SEA (CVE-57) and CORREGIDOR (CVE-58) on the right flank, all under the command of Admiral Griffin aboard flagship NEW MEXICO. Disaster struck on November 24th as Gilbert and others topside witnessed a Japanese torpedo slam into LISCOME BAY. The ship exploded in flames, with munitions detonating below decks and aircraft on the flight deck being blasted into the sky. Burning debris and molten metal rained down on NEW MEXICO, 1500 yards away. For 23 terrifying minutes, the carrier disintegrated while settling by the stern, and then slipped below the surface with the loss of 644 sailors, including Dorie Miller, the first African-American to be awarded the Navy Cross (for heroic actions during the attack on Pearl Harbor).
Captain Zacharias’ guns continued to hammer Japanese shore installations on Makin Island while our marines overran their defenses. With mission accomplished, NEW MEXICO returned Pearl Harbor.
Gilbert Rice of Idaho on shore leave in Honolulu in 1943
Next came the Marshall Islands and Truk, the key Japanese naval fortress in the Carolines. NEW MEXICO left Pearl Harbor on January 22nd, 1944.
Sun bathing on the forecastle while enroute to the Marshalls
The Queen arrived off Kwajalein Atoll for the pre-invasion battering on the 31st of January. Into Ebeye and Kwajalein Islands, NEW MEXICO lobbed high explosives by the ton but here she suffered her first casualty of the war.
plane returning for fuel in the Marshall Islands, with Kwajalein and Ebeye
in the background; to create flat water for landing, the ship would turn sharply
One of BB-40’s “airdales” sets down on flat water
Two NEW MEXICO Kingfisher spotter planes were sent buzzing over embattled Kwajalein to relay target locations to the battleship’s gunners. One of them, piloted by Lieutenant Forney O. Fuqua, USNR, with Radioman Second Class Harrison D. Miller in the rear seat to assist with communications, was struck by enemy shellfire on January 31st, 1944. Fuqua radioed his ship: “Cockpit full of gasoline fumes . . . hit very badly . . . am making emergency landing . . .” Taking over the controls Miller brought the damaged plane down to the surface, but it overturned before landing. An alert U.S. minesweeper rescued Miller, but the Kingfisher sank before Lieutenant Fuqua’s body could be recovered.
Zacharias presents the Distinguished Flying Cross to RM2 Miller
who stayed with, and attempted to save, his wounded and unconscious pilot
receives sincere congratulations from his shipmates; third sailor
from the left is James Kennedy who now resides in Cedar Crest, New Mexico
On February 20th, NEW MEXICO pounded Taroa Island in the Maloelap Atoll and Wotje Island, in the Marshalls. By the end of these strikes, Captain Zacharias’ main and secondary batteries had contributed 2,400 rounds to the destruction of enemy defenses.
Ellis Mark Zacharias and
the gun boss
observing the shelling of the Marshalls
Navy shells raise plume of black smoke
Marshall Islands bombardment
Smoke rises from destruction on Kwajalein as night sets in
Watching bombardment of the Marshalls
Officers watch bombardment; aft criss-crossed 14” guns pointed to starboard
to scuttlebutt, then Under Secretary of the Navy, James
Forrestal, was in this seaplane leaving Kwajalein; BB-40 in background
Landing Craft Infantry – Two LCI’s alongside BB-40 at Kwajalein
Ships in lagoon, Kwajalein Atoll
Motor whaleboat heads for island forming part of Kwajalein Atoll
Wrecked Japanese ship beached in the Marshalls
Wreckage of Japanese plane on Kwajalein
Yank tank rolls down road on Kwajalein Atoll
Men line up for chow on Kwajalein
Entertainment by South Pacific islanders
Wreckage of Japanese gun encampment
Captain Zacharias in front of landing craft in Kwajalein
Remains of Japanese AA gun
Next came Majuro Lagoon, 270 miles southeast of Kwajalein, then Efate for re-arming. On March 20th NEW MEXICO joined units in the diversionary bombardment of Kavieng on New Ireland which brought counter-fire but again the NEW MEXICO escaped unscathed.
Plane on Majuro airstrip
Hut on Majuro Atoll
Sailors enjoy swimming at Majuro Atoll
From Efate on April 23rd, the battleships IDAHO (BB-42), PENNSYLVANIA (BB-38) and NEW MEXICO (BB-40) headed southwest with a band of destroyers. Recreation awaited their crews upon arrival in Sydney, Australia April 29th.
sunbathing underway, port side of quarterdeck.
Note two Kingfishers on fantail
Sidney, Lord Gowrie, Alexander
Governor-General of Australia, inspects marines
crew’s pal “Kwajalein” who jumped ship
in Australia for a friendly tomcat
On Cinco de Mayo, NEW MEXICO cleared Sydney Harbor and arrived back in Efate five days later. There, Rear Admiral George L. Wayler replaced Rear Admiral Griffin as Commander Battleship Division Three.
of Command at Efate Island.
Rear Admiral Griffin (at microphone)
large number of steel drums floated about.
Disguised Japanese mines? Just in case, 20mm gunfire.
20mm guns firing low off Efate Island,
most likely at floating drums.
In mid-June 1944, NEW MEXICO began her artillery assault on Tinian and Saipan, separated by a 3-mile wide channel, in the Mariana Islands. She then concentrated her fire on Guam between June 16th and 25th while providing protection for transports and supply ships.
Shelling Guam on June 16, 1944
The 5-inch guns in BB-40’s secondary battery
Gilbert had befriended a young sailor from Guam. During the shore bombardment, the two stood on the forecastle as the salvos boomed away at Guam. The young man looked at Gilbert and said “That’s my family’s house over there that they are shooting at. There goes my neighborhood and my home.”
“Play-by-play” account to those below decks by Chaplain Twitchell
Supervising recovery of spotting plane off Guam.
Harold K. Anderson, Jr., USNR brings his Vought
OS2U-3 Kingfisher aboard after an observation flight.
Note .30 cal machine gun forward of the pilot.
Anderson back from a mission over Guam (6-16-44). Note near
his hand a Japanese shrapnel hole, which went through the gas tank.
Later, Anderson was listed as missing in action, and posthumously
awarded an Air Medal for courageous conduct
while serving as NEW MEXICO’s eyes.
Off Tinian, The Queen’s Junior Medical Officer uses
highline to transfer to a wounded “can”
Junior Medical Officer assisted the destroyer’s
doctor before returning with some of the casualties
Transport ship observing the smoke of fierce fighting on Guam
Transports and supply ships supporting our fighting forces
Shell bursts on Guam’s shoreline
NEW MEXICO’s sister ship throws shells at Japanese positions
Burning on Orote Peninsula, location of a Japanese airfield, and Cabras Island, Guam
A hit on Cabras Island as seen by a spotter pilot
A paradox of war and peace; smoke rises from Village of Piti, Guam
dark, BB-40 crews surprise the Japanese who liked to repair
airfields at night; main battery firing at Rota in the Marianas
The beachhead was quickly established south of Adelup Point on Guam
Explosion on southern tip of Saipan; Tinian is to the right
Shelling Saipan, June 22,1944
Gilbert had an African-American friend on board NEW MEXICO nick-named Ivory. Everyone had nicknames; Gilbert’s was Rice-A-Roni. While the two worked below decks on some repairs, they heard on the loudspeaker, “Now hear this: This is NOT a drill. Standby for torpedo hit on the starboard side.” They felt the ship turning to avoid the torpedo. Ivory fell to his knees, holding onto some pipes and began praying, “Lord, turn dat torpedo, TURN DAT TORPEDO!” It must have worked, because it never hit NEW MEXICO!
Big guns, interesting shockwave patterns
At one point in the operation, one of NEW MEXICO’s spotter planes detected a shore battery and requested some salvos for it. Although the objective was completely obscured from view, the navigator hurriedly obtained range and bearing. Electric motors swung the big guns into position and a 14-inch projectile went hurling towards the target. Then word from the pilot: “I’m speechless. You got a direct hit. Scratch this target off your list.”
One of several hospital ships in the Marianas
Destruction of Japanese pillbox
Crew observe bombardment of Tinian
work over, the Queen’s men watch others bombard
Tinian; like spectators, sailors resemble casual sports fans
A naval assault team was formed at Saipan on July 15th consisting of battleships PENSYLVANIA and NEW MEXICO, destroyers HAILEY and HAGGARD and the auxiliary HAMILTON. NEW MEXICO guns helped pave the way for our Marines to go ashore and then she rendered close fire support.
After the initial landings, Captain Zacharias received an urgent request for illumination fire to prevent Japanese counter-attacks under cover of darkness. NEW MEXICO answered with showers of star shells over hidden enemy positions. At dawn Major General Roy S. Geiger sent the following message to NEW MEXICO. “Thanks, you saved the day.”
For courageous conduct while serving as the target-spotting “eyes” of the battleship during these operations, two pilots, Lieutenant (jg) Thomas Moore, USNR and Lieutenant (jg) Harold K. Anderson, Jr., USNR (missing in action) were awarded Air Medals by Vice Admiral Richmond Kelly Turner. Both pilots encountered anti-aircraft fire during their hazardous missions and one of the planes was riddled by fragments of a Japanese shell while over Guam. At the same time, Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz cited the rear-seat radiomen-gunners for efficiently carrying out “numerous naval gunfire spotting missions” during the Marianas campaign.
Landing effected, island won, marines rig tents
Internees on Saipan; kids have fun; photo by Capt. Zacharias
Ship Tank - LST-227 - unloading
including bull-dozer, on the beach in Guam, July 1944
underground defense ripped
open by naval bombardment
Twitchell and Captain Zacharias
survey destroyed Japanese gun
Unexploded 14-inch shell from American battlewagon
correspondents who covered fighting from NEW MEXICO,
later landed on shore; civilian reporter William H. Chickering
was killed on the bridge during a kamikaze attack on January 6,1945
Destroyers on patrol off Guam
Officers view wreckage from naval bombardment
Captain Zacharias and Commander Harrison inspect a Japanese pillbox
the taking of the beachhead, Guam is nearly secure
and the Marianas campaign is drawing to a successful conclusion
The Queen dropped anchor within Eniwetok Atoll in the Marshalls on June 27th and spent a couple weeks recuperating.
Music and sunshine while anchored off Eniwetok
off Eniwetok Atoll, all ready for the movies
on the starboard quarterdeck near turret #4
Officers and crew waiting for USO show to begin
of a USO Troupe show, actress Dorothy Lamour
entertains the troops on a makeshift fantail stage
USO entertainers end their variety show by kissing some lucky sailors
On July 30th, NEW MEXICO left the Marianas. She had bombarded Guam and nearby Rota with 6,500 shells. After another stop at Eniwetok, she departed for Pearl Harbor, then on to Puget Sound for upkeep and refurbishment, including new guns.
During September 1944, Captain Zacharias and Gilbert Rice were among those detached from the ship. Gilbert was transferred to fleet welding school in San Diego. But first he hitch-hiked home to Idaho for 30 days leave. The new Commanding Officer, Captain Robert W. Fleming, would guide NEW MEXICO back into action but would perish when a kamikaze slams into the bridge during action in the Philippines.
USS NEW MEXICO (BB-40) in peacetime rig
class petty officer Gilbert Rice receiving
a commendation for
welding a patch to repair storm damage on the bow of USS THEODORE E. CHANDLER (DD-717) during the Korean War; in December 1951 he hung over the side in a boatswain's chair while underway in very rough seas
Warrant Officer Gilbert Theron Rice, USN(Ret)