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South Jersey

Ceremony beckons sailors to battleship

Saturday, May 24, 2003

Courier-Post Staff

The words still flow uneasily for Robert Peniston.

Standing on the deck of the USS New Jersey on a misty Friday, the 80-year-old retired Navy captain recited the battleship's decommissioning speech he gave in 1969.

"Rest well, yet sleep lightly and hear the call, if again sounded, to provide firepower for freedom," said the ship's former commander during the 60th anniversary of its commissioning into naval service.

"She will hear the call and, thanks to her magnificent crew, she is ready," said Peniston, of McLean, Va., with an emotional quiver in his voice as he stood on the historic ship on the Camden Waterfront.

That speech was the source of the ship's "firepower for freedom" motto.

The nation's most decorated battleship answered another call to service in a 1980s modernization with missiles. It was eventually converted into a museum to educate the public about its military history and to honor those who served aboard.

Thrilled the ship has a new role, Peniston and other speakers thanked the volunteers who donate their time as tour guides, clerical workers, artifact catalogers, painters, brass polishers and deck hands.

"It is wonderful to return and bask in the glow of this lady, and it could not be without the volunteer crew . . . (it) appears to be ready to go to sea," Peniston told a crowd of more than 125 gathered under a tent for the ceremony at the start of Memorial Day weekend.

He said he is still devastated that he received orders to decommission the New Jersey only one day after he took command when he had been anticipating heading to Vietnam for its second tour of duty. He first got a peek at the ship as it visited the Chesapeake Bay in training just after its 1943 commissioning and served on the New Jersey in 1946-47 as a gun turret officer and then assistant navigator.

"It (decommissioning) was the most traumatic experience in my life. She was the big ship in my life," he said, referring to it affectionately as "grand lady" and "old gal."

"Wherever she has gone, she has found her way into the hearts of people."

The New Jersey had gathered 19 campaign stars for service in World War II, the Korean and Vietnam wars, the Beirut crisis and the Middle East, losing only two crewmen to battles.

The Navy awarded the ship as a museum in 2000 to the Home Port Alliance, a nonprofit coalition that brought the ship to Camden.

The ship is docked about a mile from the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, where it was launched on Dec. 7, 1942, and commissioned on May 23, 1943.

The Iowa-class ship is the largest ever built at more than 887 feet long - nearly the length of three football fields. The museum opened in October 2001.

State Sen. John Matheussen, R-Gloucester, who is the Alliance co-chairman, said the museum project has been a "labor of love" for volunteers. They recently received the governor's volunteerism award for bringing it back to life.

"Making sure the battleship would some day be here in New Jersey has been the proudest moment of my public life as a state legislator, entrepreneur and retired Navy (reserve) captain," said Assemblyman Joseph Azzolina, R-Monmouth. He is chairman of the state battleship commission who served on board off Lebanon after U.S. Marines and a ship crewman were killed in a terrorist explosion at barracks there.

John Horan, of Cherry Hill, the crew signalman on commissioning day in 1943, said he hoisted the ship's pennant marking the start of its naval service while a sea of hundreds of other sailors in white dress uniform swarmed the fantail.

"It was a new experience for most of us who were just kids and was exciting to be finally getting under way. It was a very proud day then and today," said Horan, 79.

Jim Zubert, a former gun captain, called the commissioning "quite a day" and remembers taking depth soundings all the way down the river. "I think the old man (the captain) was doing 15 to 16 knots, which is quite a clip. For a ship so big I was impressed," said Zubert, 81, of Pitman.

Volunteer Tom Helvig, 67, of Mount Laurel, who publishes the ship newspaper The Jerseyman, said it was a thrill to hear Peniston's praise for volunteers. "It makes us feel pretty darned good," he said.

During a tour of the ship, Peniston lingered on the forecastle overlooking the sweeping and tapered bow - his favorite part of the beloved ship. When he looks at it from there or from the captain's bridge above the main deck and two of the three 16-inch gun turrets, he said the view "exudes power."

Reach Carol Comegno at (609) 267-9486 or

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