HOUSTON -- A gray lady celebrating her 99th birthday on Tuesday welcomed a smiling visitor who hadn t seen her in more than 60 years.

As he walked up her gangplank, Cosel Foster leaned against a wheelchair for support and marveled at the sight of the U.S.S. Texas, the retired battleship that brought him home from the Pacific War in 1945

I came from California back from Pearl Harbor on the last trip, Foster remembered.

He was a Marine, but he volunteered to work in the barber shop in exchange for early chow and a better place to sleep.

This is it, he said. And I m here to see it.

Of course, plenty of other people already on board had come to see it too.

Children climbed onto the guns that helped Foster s fellow Marines storm the beaches of Japanese-occupied islands during World War II.

Veterans wearing baseball caps bearing military insignia taught their grandchildren invaluable lessons of history.

It s something they can walk on, said Cristal Bostain, a school teacher who brought her daughter aboard the ship. They can see history instead of reading it in a book.

Indeed, three generations of the Bostain family wandered the decks of the Battleship Texas on the 99th anniversary of her commissioning.

The kids are having a ball, said Pat Bastain, whose grandchildren scurried around the ship. They love to do stuff like this.

An old ship that hasn t fired its guns in decades still has a place in this world. The U.S.S. Texas, a veteran of two world wars, has spent the decades since the

Japanese surrendered docked next to the San Jacinto Battleground, a floating monument to the nation s naval heritage.

Uniformed state workers and dedicated volunteers spend their days wandering the decks telling tourists about her past. The Battleship Texas, they remind visitors, fired its huge guns off the coasts of France on D-Day and shelled the shores of Iwo Jima and Okinawa.

She s a giant museum piece now and, sadly, she s showing her age. Rust and patches scar the ship s hull along the waterline, evidence of the startling incident a few months back when the ship took on so much water she began listing to one side.

Even Cosel Foster, who s 88 years old, can tell the 99-year-old ship that brought him back from the Pacific needs a lot of work

Well, it needs some maintenance, I think, he said.

At long last, the work is about to begin.

Next month, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department has announced, contractors will begin the first major structural repairs on the Battleship Texas in 20 years. The $17.5 million contract went to Taylor Marine of Beaufort, S.C., which recently replaced part of the steel hull of the Battleship North Carolina.

She was in commission 36 years, served her country well, said Winnie Trippet, the curator of the Battleship Texas for the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. And you know, usually the Navy takes her ships to dry-dock every two to five years, and she hasn t been in twenty-something years.

Most of the work will happen below decks where the public is not allowed. Officials say tourists will still be able to visit the ship and should see only minor disruptions while the repairs are underway.

The work was made possible by a bond issue approved by Texas voters in 2008. But officials say they may need even more money to carry out the ambitious plan to eventually dry berth the Texas on her current site.

That s great, said Cristal Bostain, watching her children run around the ship s deck. They need to renovate it and keep history alive. They say history is going to repeat itself, so keep it alive.

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