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Thursday, August 11, 2005Past Issues - S | M | T | W | T | F | S
South Jersey

USS New Jersey returns home to cheers, tears

Photos by AL SCHELL/Courier-Post
Crowds in Gloucester City watch as the `Big J' is towed from the former Philadelphia Naval Shipyard to Beckett Street Terminal in Camden Thursday.
Courier-Post Staff

Home at last.

The battleship USS New Jersey touched the banks of its namesake state for the first time in decades - and likely the final time - as it docked Thursday on the Camden Waterfront in preparation for becoming a museum next year.

Hundreds cheered, some cried and others expressed relief as it was towed upriver from Philadelphia and arrived in Camden on a misty and overcast morning, completing the nearly 6,000-mile journey ``Big J'' began in September when it left the Navy mothball fleet in Bremerton, Wash.

Its arrival here also marks the end of a two-year quest by a South Jersey coalition - the Home Port Alliance - to bring the historic and highly decorated ship to Camden and a 20-year effort by some members of the state Battleship Commission to bring it back to the state.

Gov. Christie Whitman and 500 others are expected to attend today an official state welcome, by invitation only.

And on Tuesday, retired Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf will speak to state veterans from the ship's deck. The speech will be shown live on a screen to delegates at the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia.

Schwarzkopf, a Trenton native who was commander of the American forces in the Persian Gulf War, will speak about military readiness on the eve of the 10th anniversary of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

Local veterans made up a large part of the riverbank crowds who watched Thursday's move.

"I stood back by the ship's fantail and cried," said ex- crew member Bob Walters of Cinnaminson, a Korean War-era veteran who was among a group of invited guests watching the docking at the Beckett Street Terminal of the South Jersey Port Corp.

The 887-foot-long Iowa-class battleship - one of the four largest ever built by the United States - left the former Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, where it was built in 1942, at 9:05 a.m. It arrived in just under two hours at high tide at the terminal.

There, four McAllister Towing tugs with a combined 13,000 horsepower eased the 45,000-ton ship sideways into Pier 4, its bow pointing upriver. It will remain there for two weeks before it is moved to another temporary site downriver in Camden.

By late 2001, the ship - BB-62 - is to open as a museum behind the E-Centre just a few hundred yards north of where it docked Thursday.

David McGuigan of Haddonfield, president of the Home Port Alliance and architect of the successful application to the Navy for the ship museum, said his first feeling was relief when BB-62 cleared the Walt Whitman Bridge, which arches 150 feet over the Delaware River.

"The second was when it came into full view. I saw the majesty of its naval engineering, the sleek lines of this dreadnought,'' said McGuigan, a retired Navy captain. ``It generated a gush of military memories that included holystoning (scrubbing) the deck of its sister ship, the battleship Missouri, when I was a midshipman."

McGuigan said the ship has several final missions - to reinvigorate the military presence in the region and to spark social action and bring an economic benefit to Camden and the state.

"The human side of things is of particular interest, especially in this region, because it was built here," said Judi London, executive director of the Camden Waterfront Marketing Bureau.

Retired Rear Admiral Thomas Seigenthaler, also of Haddonfield and the alliance's executive director, was the only alliance representative to ride upriver on the ship. He was on the bridge with a river pilot and described the trip as reliving his glory days in the Navy.

"We made the pier!" he joked as he gave a two-thumbs-up sign after the docking.

"I'm awestruck by its size and to see it here after all our work and there's still a lot of work ahead," said alliance member Linda Hayes, who works for the Delaware River Port Authority.

Battleship enthusiasts and other spectators gathered at places like Soupy Island in National Park and Proprietor's Park in Gloucester City to see it pass. At Wiggins Park in Camden, visitors had a view only of the bow and the docking. More than 100 people gathered there for a Camden County celebration, where the Johnny Darrow Band played patriotic music.

"So many people have worked on it. It's like part of them are coming home," said Donald Bukharo, 62, of Pitman, a commandant for the Marine Corps League.

He first caught a glimpse of the battleship in Vietnam and said, at one time, he could rattle off a list of facts about it.

"It has a special place in my heart," Bukharo said.

George Martella, 80, of Bellmawr, who played a boatswain' s pipe as the ship docked, lamented that people are not so patriotic as they once were.

"This is an education in patriotism," said Martella, who served more than 20 years in the Navy. "Even though I was never on the battleship, when I see any naval battleship, it chills you."

Melinda Leonard of Washington Township brought her children, 3-year-old Kate and 8-year-old Bradley, for a history lesson on the importance of the military. Her father, Warren Bush, 67, served in the military in the 1950s. Her father-in-law, Roy Leonard, also was on hand and played saxophone in the band. "We are definitely planning to come back to go on the ship," said Leonard, whose husband serves in the Navy.

Dino Sistilli of Woodbury arrived at Proprietor's Park at 6:30 a.m.

"I wanted to get a seat," said the retired Air Force veteran as he sat on a bench overlooking the river. "I'm a nut."

By 9:30 a.m., 200 to 300 people had gathered to watch the battleship pass by. In the drizzle, they waved flags, flashed cameras and recorded video.

Sistilli also saw the USS New Jersey as it sailed up the Delaware River in November.

"It's historic," he said. "It'll never move again. I think it's one of the most beautiful ships ever made."

In January, the Navy chose the alliance and its Camden berthing site over the state-sanctioned application for Bayonne in North Jersey, where the ship was stored after service in two wars.

The contract transferring the warship to the Camden organization was signed July 20 by Navy Secretary Richard Danzig.

The ship will remain at Beckett Street Terminal for two weeks, but will not be open to the public, said port executive director Joseph Balzano, who also is a member of the alliance.

However, tourists may be able to take ferry rides downriver to see it beginning next week.

"It was an exciting day for myself and an even more exciting day for Camden," said Balzano, who directed much of the docking activity.

The ship will be moved a mile south to Broadway Terminal, where it will undergo an estimated $20 million refurbishment that may take up to a year.

Port worker Robert Bak and Camden County worker Jacquelyn Cassidy, 21, both of Camden, said they believe it will help the city. "Right now, I am just overwhelmed with pride," Cassidy said.

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