By CAROL COMEGNO
Former crew members who served on the USS New Jersey during its nearly 50-year career will come together next month on the historic battleship.
More than 500 former Navy sailors and Marines, from cooks to captains, are expected at a reunion Sept. 13 on the ship, now a museum on the city waterfront.
Dick Esser, president of the nonprofit USS New Jersey Veterans Inc., said the visit will be a highlight of a four- day reunion of its members in Cherry Hill from Sept. 12 to 15.
He said his group has been planning this reunion for almost five years but waited until the retired battleship, the Navy's most decorated, was opened and ready to welcome visitors.
Said Esser, a Korean War veteran from Lorain, Ohio: "Our members want to go into the superstructure and below to places they worked, slept and ate. We have some coming who haven't seen it in nearly 60 years. It's going to be an emotional experience for them."
The ship opened October 2001 after the Navy decided to donate the second of the four Iowa class ships - the largest the Navy ever built and the longest, at 887 feet. The Navy chose Camden on the basis of a stronger application, ending a contentious competition with Bayonne. The state battleship commission sponsored the latter site but is now supporting the ship in Camden.
The ship was built at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, launched in 1942 on the first anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack and commissioned in 1943 for World War II. It also served in the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Beirut crisis, earning 19 campaign stars. The Navy decommissioned it for the last time in 1991 and donated it in 2000 after an effort to remove it from the naval register.
The Home Port Alliance, a nonprofit coalition from South Jersey, won the ship and opened the Battleship New Jersey Memorial and Museum in October 2001. The Alliance has spent almost $20 million to restore it, build a new pier between Mickle Boulevard and Clinton Street and open a visitor center in a joint effort with contractors and volunteers using local, state and federal grants.
Patricia Jones, co-chairman of the alliance, said the former crewmen will be given access to the ship all day on the 13th with no admission and that the entire group will be permitted back on the ship for free on the 14th.
"We're very excited ourselves and want them to know how welcome they are," she said. "It will also be a great experience for our other visitors to see those who served on the ship and perhaps hear the tales of some of them."
State Sen. John Matheussen, R-Gloucester, the other co- chairman, said he hopes the ongoing restoration of the ship in its 1980s configuration - when missiles joined its famed 16-inch guns - meets the expectations of its former shipmates.
"They are the living history and the ship is their place," he said.
Esser said he expects 1,130 crewmen, families and other guests to attend a memorial service on the ship's fantail at 10 a.m. Sept. 14 and then tour the ship. He said it is the first reunion on the ship for the nearly 1,400-member veterans group, which was formed 22 years ago.
Commerce Bank and the Marlton law firm of Parker McCay & Criscuolo are underwriting the cost of the event for the former crew and their guests, said museum executive director Troy Collins.
Esser said the two firms are donating $3,500 because the nonprofit veterans group cannot afford to pay for the standard rental for a fantail event, including janitorial and equipment charges.
"We want their visit to be a great one and would hope for support from the USS New Jersey veterans in the future," he said.
Retired Vice Adm. Douglas Katz of Annapolis, Md., the ship' s captain in the late 1980s, will be the reunion banquet speaker Sept. 15 at the Cherry Hill Hilton on Route 70.
"I enjoy reconnecting with people," said the former captain of the New Jersey ship in the late 1980s. "It's always wonderful to reflect. I think a lot about what a great ship (it was) in our naval history and despite the Navy moving forward with new technology, we still don't have anything that makes a hole as big as a 16-inch gun."
Reach Carol Comegno at (609) 267-9487 or ccomegno@email@example.com