LOS LUNAS — Historian and Navy veteran John Taylor said he always jokingly told himself when he retired from service he would move somewhere with no coastline and no place deep enough to submerge in, so he found himself in New Mexico.
“I don’t know that I have a particular interest in the military, it’s just one of those things.” Taylor said. “I’m really interested in New Mexico history and having this idea where the two kind of merge.”
As he began to delve further into New Mexico history, Taylor found a deep connection between the landlocked state and the U.S. Navy, leading to a 2017 book and now a temporary exhibit at the Los Lunas Museum of Heritage and Arts.
The exhibit will be on display at the museum until Aug. 21.
“I think it’s well worth seeing, not just because I am involved, but because it represents something that people don’t normally think about,” Taylor said. “You don’t think about New Mexico and the Navy in the same breath, but there really is a tradition here.”
All together, there are 95 ships that served in the U.S. Navy carrying a New Mexico namesake, with most named for towns, counties, the state itself and important people who called New Mexico home. Taylor dubbed this collection of ships “New Mexico’s Navy,” with their service ranging from the Civil War to the present.
“They have actually participated in all the wars, both hot and cold, that the United States has participated in,” Taylor said, adding that most are from the World War II era.
The exhibit originally was scheduled to begin last spring, but like so many other plans, the pandemic and lockdowns put it on hold. Taylor said even though the exhibit was postponed, the organizers never stopped thinking about it.
They began working on it again in late fall of 2020, gathering models and other artifacts. Taylor said the museum began intensely working on it in February in preparation of the June 26 grand opening.
Walking into the exhibit, visitors are greeted by a large model of the U.S.S. New Mexico battleship, which is on loan to the museum from the Museum of New Mexico. The large scale replica took 30 years to construct by two different artists, with one continuing the work after the first became ill.
It sits among several models of the ships within the New Mexico Navy the museum borrowed from collectors, schools and military history enthusiasts all over New Mexico.
“The models are what we feel are a really special part of this exhibit — they came from all over the state,” Taylor said. “We have models from Raton, models from Clovis, models from Gallup.”
Among the ship models is one for the U.S.S. Nautilus, which Taylor pointed out is not named after anything in New Mexico.
“Now, the Nautilus isn’t part of the New Mexico Navy, except to the extent that I served on it” he said with a laugh.
Taylor served in the U.S. Navy during the Vietnam era from 1970 to 1975, during which he spent some time on the Nautilus. The exhibit features a display noting Taylor’s experience in the Navy, as well as his work researching the history of New Mexico’s unofficial Navy.
Models aren’t the only items the exhibit has to offer. In the back of the main room sits an unsuspecting sea chest holding the memories of a chief petty officer who served during the second world war and eventually retired to Bosque Farms.
Among his uniform and some other mementos within the chest are his certificate that he received after crossing the equator and love letters he penned to his wife while away from home.
Within the exhibit is a section titled, “On Eternal Patrol,” memorializing the ships and men who served in New Mexico’s Navy. Some of the ships lost include the Pecos, the Hurley, the Navajo and the Bullhead.
The Bullhead was not initially a member of New Mexico’s Navy, but rather was inducted in 1987. The U.S. Navy launched a campaign in cities across the United States to convince them to memorialize fallen ships. Albuquerque adopted the Bullhead, giving its namesake to Bullhead Park.
Although it’s wreckage was never found, a replica of the Bullhead as it would be seen through a porthole is on display at the museum.
Also on display in the “On Eternal Patrol” section is a looping video of ships being hit by kamikaze attacks during World War II. Taylor noted the U.S.S. New Mexico was hit by two different kamikazes, one of which resulted in the death of the ship captain.
In addition to the kamikaze videos, many other historic videos can be seen throughout the exhibit, which Taylor said is meant to give the space a multimedia element.
Taylor thanks the museum staff for working on the more artistic elements of the exhibit, including the informational boards scattered throughout.
“I am just so proud of what they did,” he said. “I can write words and find pictures, but they turned it into art. It’s just, from my point of view, a marvelous thing because of that.”
The Los Lunas Museum of Heritage and Arts is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. every Tuesday through Saturday. The exhibit of New Mexico’s unofficial Navy will be on display until Aug. 21.