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By CAROL COMEGNO
Bombs screamed as they descended on the USS New Jersey, sinking it off Cape Hatteras, N.C.
The bombing was no accident and the enemy was the friendly fire of American bombers led by flying legend Brig. Gen. William "Billy" Mitchell.
On Sept. 5, 1923 - 80 years ago today - those early bombers sank the armored USS New Jersey BB-16 and its sister ship, the USS Virginia BB-13 in one of the first demonstrations of air power over naval power.
The military will commemorate the anniversary with a flyover today at Hatteras.
The ships, once part of the Great White Fleet of President Theodore Roosevelt, were doomed to destruction because of a disarmament agreement after World War I.
Now they are relegated to the great blue deep.
It would be 70 years before anyone would see the New Jersey again.
In 1994, two divers descended 340 feet to the submerged wreck, which rests upside down and is partially buried in silt.
"It's a dangerous dive because of the depth and the current, but we could not have asked for better diving conditions. It was ideal, and the view was stunning," said diver Michael Boring, a federal government worker who now lives in Germany.
They described the 441-foot-long New Jersey as remarkably different in appearance from the hundreds of other wrecks off the treacherous Carolina coastline.
"While other wrecks are covered with sea life and take on a ghostly appearance, the New Jersey was clean and its hull intact and not even rusted," said Douglas Buckley of Maryland, the other diver.
"We just happened to pick a spectacular day to view the ship but could only stay down 12 minutes because a storm was approaching," Boring said. "Unfortunately, we don't have any video or pictures.
"It was our first dive to over 300 feet so Doug and I were more interested in trying to stay alive."
They were surprised to find little hull damage.
Because the water was so unexpectedly clear and the ship so clean, Buckley could see it well even 100 feet above it.
The hull is devoid of sea life such as anemones, sponges and barnacles because of the silt carried by the swiftly moving warm water of the Gulf Stream and the colder Labrador Current, which converge where the New Jersey lies.
"The two propellers are huge and gleam like shining yellow bronze because the silt sandblasts their surfaces as it is pushed along by the Gulf Stream," said Buckley, who was the first recreational diver to go down to the Civil War ironclad Monitor not far from the New Jersey.
Art Kirchner, a dive boat captain from Rockaway, Morris County, who took them out to the ship, said he does not believe any other divers have ever seen the New Jersey, though others have gone to the Virginia.
"Nobody has been back. They were the first and only ones to ever go down and see it without a doubt," said the sea captain, who takes divers out every summer off Hatteras in Margie II, his specially equipped 36-foot boat.
He said the New Jersey is three miles east of Diamond Shoals Light and about 16 miles from the barrier island of Hatteras.
It also rests about five miles northeast of the spot where the Monitor, one of the first two Civil War ironclads, lay until it was raised recently.
The divers said it took only eight minutes to descend along the dive boat's anchor line even with extra tanks filled with a mixture of helium, nitrogen and oxygen strapped under their arms. They need the extra tanks on their 90-minute ascent, which was necessary to achieve proper decompression of their lungs.
The new Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum in Hatteras has a special exhibit on the bombings. It is part of North Carolina's "First in Flight" celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Wright brothers.
William Schwarzer, project director and author of a new book, The Lion Killers: Billy Mitchell and the Birth of Strategic Bombing, said the ship was target practice for biplane bombers, the Martin MB-2 and lighter DeHaviland DH4.
They took off from two locations, a special airfield built at Hatteras for the bombardment and Langley Air Force Base in Virginia. He said the bombings also marked the first use of the newly developed bombsight known as the Mark 2, or DeSeversky.
It didn't take long for the ships to sink.
"The New Jersey and the Virginia each took less than an hour, which was pretty quick," he said.
An Army Air Service video at the museum shows the New Jersey being hit by a number of bombs weighing between 600 and 2,000 pounds.
The final blow was at the rear mast of the ship. Air bubbles were visible in the water after the final bomb struck, indicating the hull was penetrated. The vessel, still fairly intact, listed to port then capsized and sank.
The coal-powered ship was launched Nov. 10, 1904, from Fore River Shipbuilding Co. in Quincy, Mass., as one of the Virginia class of battleships, with a top speed of 19 knots. During World I it served as a training ship in the Chesapeake Bay but it did bring 5,000 troops home from France on four round trips after the World War I Armistice.
All that survives of the New Jersey is its bell, mounted outside city hall in Elizabeth, and its silver service. The state commissioned Tiffany & Co. to fashion the service and presented it to the ship as a gift in 1907. The 119-piece set is elaborately etched with a picture of BB-16 and other state symbols and sites.
The silver was later used on the second battleship USS New Jersey BB-62, now a museum in Camden, but is housed at the governor's mansion, Drumthwacket.
Reach Carol Comegno at (609) 267-9486 or email@example.com