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South Jersey

Monday, June 25, 2001
Big J's crew, workers tell their stories

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  • Complete USS New Jersey coverage

    Courier-Post Staff

    Much of the history of the battleship USS New Jersey cannot be found in books.

    Much of the ship's legacy is spun from the life stories of men and women who helped build the 887-foot warship or who served aboard it during the New Jersey's nearly 50 years of service in three major wars.

    Kean University in Union County is capturing some of those personal experiences and emotions as part of an oral history project funded by the New Jersey Battleship Foundation.

    With a two-year, $40,000 grant from revenue derived from the state's battleship license plate and state income tax check-off, university professors have started recording oral histories aboard the Navy's most highly decorated battleship, due to open to the public in September as a floating museum and memorial on the Camden Waterfront.

    A Kean team came to the Broadway Terminal in South Camden last week where the now-retired ship is undergoing refurbishment. Team members videotaped interviews with former shipbuilders and ex-crew members.

    "It's fascinating and a unique opportunity to hear these stories," said Tom Baint, an associate professor who conducted interviews.

    He said the agreement with the battleship foundation also calls for the university to put together a statewide curriculum about the ship that will be taught in the schools by 2002.

    "So far we have done about 14 interviews for the oral history. We will try to do as many as possible," Baint said.

    He said he was one of many Marines in Vietnam for whom the battleship provided major fire support.

    The group restoring the historic ship, the Home Port Alliance, plans to use the oral histories in several different ways.

    "We would like to use some of the interview quotes in the video tour we are compiling for handicapped folks who cannot go up and down steps to see most of the inside of the ship. We hope to have this ready by opening day," said Jack Shaw, alliance program director.

    He said other plans to use the videotaped material on the tour routes and to create archives of complete interviews depend on the level of future funding."

    "We would like to be able to create interactive kiosks at certain locations on the ship with a combination of audio and video to highlight those people who worked in or served on the ship in those areas," Shaw said.

    He said he hopes for an extensive oral archives so historians and researchers can have primary sources for reference.

    One of those interviewed last week was Mable McCray, 83, of Millsboro, Del., one of nine female welders who worked on the battleship when it was being built at the former Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.

    Despite her age and having to walk with a cane, she was able to climb one flight of stairs inside the ship above the main deck to an interview room.

    She brought a metal box made by other welders at the shipyard. Inside were metal bracelets with braid work that some of the male shipyard workers made for the women welders, including one engraved with her name.

    She also had her original 1945 certificate of appreciation from the Navy for her wartime service.

    "Female welders got more attention than anyone. People used to come in to get a look at us," she said.

    She said one of the areas she worked on was the floor of a 16-inch gun turret.

    At the launch - Dec. 7, 1942, the first anniversary of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor - McCray stood just a few feet from the stage where Kate Smith sang the National Anthem.

    Then she saw the massive ship slide down the skids into the Delaware River.

    "You got a feeling you never had before because you did something as a woman that no one else had ever done," she said. "I think it is important for people to know women helped build the ship."

    The Kean video crew also interviewed Gary Pepek of Jackson Township, formerly of Newark, an ex-crew member who was on the ship's Beirut mission in 1983.

    He retired from the Navy at a ceremony on the deck of the New Jersey on June 8 under the looming 16-inch guns of one of its three gun turrets.

    "I (re-enlisted) in the 1980s just to be on the battleship, so it made me stay in the service. I liked it because of the true camaraderie of the crew," said Pepek, who after 20 minutes became misty-eyed. "It was a sad thing to put this ship out of commission. Hopefully she will live on here forever."

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