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By CAROL COMEGNO
Matthew Rickards leaves today for the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy in New York, but he already has fulfilled his first school assignment.
Rickards and other cadets were asked to secure the flag of the state where they live to display at the academy in Kings Point.
He not only secured one, but also was able to have it flown from the mast of the historic battleship USS New Jersey in Camden.
"I was very excited about it. It was a rare opportunity. I doubt any of the students who bring flags will have one flown from anything like the New Jersey," said Rickards, 18, a June graduate of Clayton High School in Gloucester County who is continuing a family tradition in the Merchant Marines.
"It is a special ship because of all it has done and its many years of service and history. I am glad it has come home."
He said he first saw the ship last year when it was towed to Camden from the former Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. It was built at and launched from the shipyard on Dec. 7, 1942.
The ship served in three major wars in the Pacific - World War II, the Vietnam War and the Korean War.
It has 19 campaign stars and other citations - more than any other U.S. battleship.
"I drove to a spot along the river in Camden County with my family to see it," he said.
Sen. John Matheussen, R-Gloucester, secured the three-foot by five-foot flag for Rickards after receiving a letter from him and then arranged to have the state flag flown from the ship's mast on June 29.
Matheussen is a member of the Home Port Alliance, the nonprofit South Jersey coalition converting the ship into a floating museum and memorial that is due to open in September on the Camden Waterfront.
The flag of the state - one of the original 13 colonies - is yellow and blue and has two classical female figures, Liberty and Prosperity, holding a shield on which three plows are engraved representing agriculture. It carries the date 1776.
Merchant marines work on cargo ships transporting goods to domestic and foreign ports.
After the academy, Rickards said he must either serve for four years on ships or join a branch of the armed forces.
Rickards will be the fourth generation of Merchant Marines in his family, but the first to attend the academy.
"My great-grandfather, Chester Rickards, worked on tugboats in Philadelphia ports for more than 50 years and my grandfather worked on tugs, too, and my uncle went to foreign ports," he said.
His great-grandfather, now 90, lives in Woodstown.
Rickards said he joined, not only because of family tradition, but also because he wants to "go out and see the world."