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South Jersey

Saturday, March 30, 2002
Women of `Big J' make mark

Courier-Post Staff

Gobs of thick fingerpaint awaited Lillian Carson of Collingswood aboard the battleship USS New Jersey on Friday.

Carson had arrived with several other women to celebrate Women's History Month aboard the Battleship New Jersey Memorial and Museum. She was the first to squash the paint with her palm, coating it with a blue brighter than any ocean the ship sailed. Then she pressed it onto a piece of artwork below a black silhouette of the battleship. The rendering was drawn by the ship's resident artist, David Boone.

Sixty years ago, Carson left her first imprint on the ship as a female welder who helped build it at the former Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.

"My father was very patriotic and wanted to work in a defense plant, so he took my sister and I along with him to get jobs," recalled the 78-year-old retiree, who was joined by about two dozen other women who represented some of the ship's female volunteers and staff. The handprinting ritual Fridayat the Battleship New Jersey Memorial and Museum was held in celebration of women's history month

"Back then I didn't think much about being a woman and doing that kind of work, but today I am kind of proud of it," she said. "We made sacrifices willingly and I think our role was crucial."

She joined the yard work force in 1942 when she was 18 and just out of high school.

She said she helped assemble metal pieces in the shop and then secure them on the steel deck before the wooden deck was laid over it.

Later, she said she watched the launching on Dec. 7, 1942, remembering that the noise made by a crowd of thousands drowned out the sound of the ship sliding into the Delaware River.

She described welding as hard work. But she enjoyed it because it was different and required precision.

On Friday with the assistance of her cane, Carson stood beside a photograph of herself with 19 other female welders from the shipyard.

Pat Jones, co-chairwoman of the Home Port Alliance nonprofit group that operates the ship, thanked all the women and especially those such as Carson who responded to the call when they were needed for the nation's defense.

"I see my role helping to lead the charge for the ship to come to Camden as a continuation of work that began with Lillian and other women who helped build her," Jones said.

Women who volunteered to help restore the battleship as a museum also were honored. Volunteer Joan O'Rourke of Haddonfield placed her mark on the artwork as did the ship' s telephone operator, Joy Greer of Lindenwold, and activities and events staffer Karen Savage of Camden.

O'Rourke worked for nine months last year doing chores such as paint preparation, vacuuming, sewing numbers on donated military uniforms and digging out old teakwood plugs from deck planks.

"I saw an an ad for help and answered it. As soon as I came on board I got an exciting feeling and loved this. I'm proud to have been part of its restoration," she said.


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