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South Jersey

Saturday, September 14, 2002
Big J reunion brings tears, tales, smiles

By CAROL COMEGNO
Courier-Post Staff
CAMDEN

William E. Hart received orders to report to the battleship USS New Jersey on Friday.

With a sea bag on his shoulder, the barber from Newton, Sussex County, sauntered aboard in his crackerjacks - naval lingo for the bell-bottomed white service dress uniform - while a band played.

He came on board Friday on the 50th anniversary of his first reporting to the battleship during its second Korean War tour in 1952.

Hart was among more than 500 former crew members who served aboard the nation's most decorated battleship from 1942 to 1991. They came from all over the United States for the first shipboard reunion of the USS New Jersey Veterans Inc.

The members shared tears and laughter, embraces and even kisses as they remembered their glory days. They shared tales with other shipmates, some of whom they had not seen in as many as 60 years.

"I used to take a blanket and sleep outside above the main deck because it was too hot below," Hart recalled.

The ship's Vietnam War skipper, retired Rear Adm. J. Edward Snyder Jr., echoed the majority sentiment about the condition of the ship.

"It's absolutely amazing how much work the volunteers have done and are still doing. She (the ship) looks just as good on the outside as she did in Vietnam and it's wonderful to be here to meet all the old guys I served with," said Snyder, 79, of McLean, Va.

The nonprofit Home Port Alliance, which turned the ship into a museum, built a new pier and restored the ship at a cost of nearly $20 million.

Alliance officials told them it was "their ship."

The Iowa-class ship - one of four built in the Navy's largest class - is 887 feet long and was built at the former Philadelphia Naval Shipyard downriver. It was awarded 19 campaign stars for service in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Beirut crisis and activity in the Persian Gulf. It was last retired in 1991 after more service than any other battleship.

Snyder relished being with his former crew and seeing guys such as Paul Seigert of Staten Island, his former yeoman, or secretary.

Seigert, who remembered writing many letters for the captain in 1968 and 1969, walked up to reintroduce himself to Snyder, whom he had not seen in more than 30 years.

Seigert told his family Snyder is "the coolest guy I ever met in my entire life." His one-time commanding officer recognized him right away and gave his hand and a great smile.

Tears trickled down the cheeks of Dr. Frank Blair of Long Beach, Calif., who grabbed his wife's hand while Michael Jones of Gloucester Township sang "Proud to be an American." He was the ship's dentist during World War II and a member of its original crew of 3,000, who are known as plank owners.

Jones preferred to remember the dice and card games rather than pulling the teeth of sailors.

"I'm headed for the craps game," the dentist joked later, recalling how the crew would play anywhere they couldn't be found.

Handicaps did not prevent George Basham, a World War II veteran from Louisville, Ky., and George Hill, 73, of Chester Md., a Korean War veteran, from attending the memorial service and celebration.

"I've been looking forward to seeing her and old buddies for a while. She's changed a little bit in the 57 years since I last saw her. Some of the gun mounts and gun tubs have been removed but she still looks fine to me," said Basham, 76, who was in a wheelchair.

"I was proud to be an American and have something to fight with," he said.

Hill, who suffered a stroke and lost a leg to diabetes, wheeled his own scooter around to the port side near the 40 mm guns he once manned at his battle stations during the war.

"I love this ship. It does something to you once aboard, this man-of-war. It makes you feel really good and secure to be on it," Hill said, who served during the first Korean War tour when sailor Robert Osterwind - one of only two combat casualties in its history - was killed.

Richard Esser of Lorain, Ohio, president of the veterans group, said he was the last to see Osterwind, a cook who had sent hot chicken soup up to Hill's unit before he died from an enemy shell while reporting to his battle station when general quarters sounded.

An emotional Esser, who could hardly speak at times Friday, described the day and the hospitality as "beyond his expectations."

Also on board was Miss USS New Jersey of 1953.

"I was treated like a queen and I learned a lot from the former crew members I met today," said Elaine Gray McQuade, 68, then from Woodbury but now of Bensalem, Pa. The 1953 crew chose her to be Miss USS New Jersey when she was 19. A model and telephone operator, she dated crew member Ralph McQuade, whom she later married.

"This was better than expected because the crew could freely roam the ship. Everyone is completely happy," said Robert Walters, 65, of Cinnaminson, a former Korean War-era crew member who works on the ship today as its archivist.

Docent supervisor Ronald Garber of Bellmawr took some of the men below to the engine spaces.

"They were having a ball meeting one another. One old sailor was spinning a throttle and yelling, `More steam!'" he said.


Reach Carol Comegno at (609) 267-9486 or ccomegno@courierpostonline.com

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