Battleship victory celebrated
By CAROL COMEGNO
Chris LaChall, Courier-Post Standing near a cake in the shape of the USS New Jersey, Marine Corps League members (from left) Bobby O'Shea, Bob Swain, Carl Grass, Don Burkhard, George Clark and Dan Muckel salute during the playing of the national anthem.
CAMDEN - USS New Jersey supporters strutted Sunday at a victory bash celebrating the Navy's recent decision to berth the decorated battleship here as a floating museum.
A joyful crowd of more than 1,000 attended the Camden County-sponsored party to savor the sweet win for South Jersey. They danced to big band and Mummers music, waved American flags, munched slices of battleship-shaped cakes, and signed up to volunteer however they're needed once the ship crosses the Delaware River to Camden.
"It's a good day to be from South Jersey!" Sen. Robert Torricelli, D-N.J., shouted to the throng inside the E-Centre as he praised the bipartisan, grass-roots effort to get the ship here after intense competition with Bayonne in North Jersey. "Congratulations and enjoy your triumph!"
He called Camden "the right decision for all the right reasons" and said the division about where the ship should go must end, asserting it belongs "to all people of New Jersey."
And there was more welcome news announced at the celebration.
State Assembly Speaker Jack Collins, R-Salem, said he and two Camden County lawmakers will introduce legislation today matching a Senate bill to appropriate money for the battleship museum. Last week, Senate President Donald DiFrancesco, R-Union, and Sen. John Matheussen, R-Gloucester, introduced legislation earmarking $7.2 million, which would boost the state commitment to $13.2 million.
The party continued for three hours just yards behind the spot on the Waterfront where a pier will be built to permanently berth the battleship as a museum and memorial.
"My hat's off to all of you," Camden County Freeholder Pat Jones said in thanking all supporters of the Camden site.
She is a member of the nonprofit Home Port Alliance, a regional group that submitted a come-from-behind plan the Navy picked over Bayonne's proposal. The North Jersey plan was submitted by the state-authorized and state-funded New Jersey Battleship Commission.
U.S. Rep. Robert Andrews, a Camden County Democrat, called the Camden win a victory for "people power" and praised the alliance as "unique and energetic" and its retired naval leaders as a "brain trust."
Party-goers from all over South Jersey signed up to either be volunteers for the ship or to receive future information about the ship's refitting and conversion into a museum between now and its expected opening in the summer of 2001.
Among them was Steve Borkowski.
"I think this is a great day for us and the state of New Jersey," said Borkowski, of West Collingswood, a Navy veteran of World War II and the Korean War. "I already signed up as a volunteer today for whatever they want me to do for the ship."
"We're very proud to be here today and this is the best thing that has ever happened to this area," said Ella Lounsberry of Alloway, who wore a battleship T-shirt with the new ship slogan, "Birth to Berth." The slogan refers to the ship's construction on the Delaware River at the old Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, where the New Jersey now waits to be restored and returned to her namesake state.
Lounsberry and her husband, Dan, an electrical engineering designer who saw the ship come up the river Nov. 11 at the Delaware Memorial Bridge, both bought $15 battleship hats. Proceeds will go toward the Home Port Alliance.
They and other couples fox trotted and jitterbugged to World War II-era songs like "String of Pearls" played by the Russ Patrick Orchestra or strutted to the Two Street Mummers.
Connie Visconti of Cherry Hill, a state worker, gave a $5 donation and signed the volunteer list.
"It will be thrilling," she said. "I collected signatures for a petition last year to get her here and I know it will take a lot to maintain."
A Camden couple, Doris and Delbert Nelson, also signed up as volunteers.
"We're from Camden and we care," said Doris, 67.
"We have hope that this is the rebirth of Camden and we are looking forward to it and need all the help we can get," said her husband, a former commander of VFW Post 1297 in Camden.
Ray Schnapp, 70, a retired union pipe fitter from Glendora, said he wants to volunteer to start a radio club on board the ship, like the one on the battle cruiser Olympia in Philadelphia.
"I am here to celebrate. This is where the ship belongs," said James Broomall, 71, of National Park, who worked on the ship in 1942 at the shipyard.
Even Home Port Alliance President David McGuigan of Haddonfield, a retired Navy captain and South Philadelphia native who steered the successful Camden bid, and Camden Mayor Milton Milan were doing the chicken-like Mummers' strut with outstretched arms and fancy footwork.
"The efforts in Camden County were spurred by Freeholder Patricia Jones, who transformed talk into $3.2 million from the freeholder board to solidify local financial support for the Camden site," McGuigan told the crowd.
Cherry Hill Mayor Susan Bass Levin said, "This has really unified South Jersey. People of all ages and backgrounds are here."
Numerous officials, including U.S. Rep. James Saxton, R-N.J., Torricelli and McGuigan, praised state battleship commission Chairman Joseph Azzolina, an assemblyman from Monmouth County.
Azzolina, who was invited to the party and came with other battleship commissioners, received several rounds of applause for his commission's efforts during the past 20 years to bring the battleship back to New Jersey. Although he did not publicly congratulate the Home Port Alliance victory Sunday in front of the crowd, he did convey that message personally Sunday to alliance members and to the press.
"This is their day and we're here to support it," he said.
John Horan of Cherry Hill, a signalman in the ship's first crew during World War II, told the crowd, "Now that it's here, we have to get behind the ship to make it the best museum ship in the whole Navy."
A crew member from the Vietnam era, Wayne Niebauer, 54, of Pedricktown, Salem County, said he was overjoyed - and relieved - at the Camden decision.
"I'm glad the ship is coming home to this state, but especially glad it's Camden.
"I told my wife if it went to Bayonne, we would have to move to be closer to it. She didn't like that idea."