By CAROL COMEGNO
A former commanding officer of the USS New Jersey praised President Bush's speech to the United Nations but advised him to be cautious about attacking Iraq.
"I don't have access to the intelligence reports I once had," said retired Vice Adm. Douglas Katz in an interview Saturday. "But I would advise to proceed with caution and gather allied support from the Arab nations before making any attack on Iraq."
Katz, who was the commanding officer of the New Jersey from 1987 to 1989, later addressed about 1,200 at the 15th annual reunion of former battleship sailors at the Hilton Hotel.
He was the commanding officer of the USS America battle group that fired on Iraq during the Persian Gulf War in 1991. He said his forces narrowly missed Saddam Hussein on two occasions, once when the Iraqi dictator was traveling in a convoy.
Katz, now a consultant for defense contractors such as Boeing, returned to the ship for the first time since walking off the deck in 1989. The New Jersey, the nation's most decorated battleship, is now a museum operated by a nonprofit group on the Camden Waterfront.
"Battleships are tradition, honor, dignity, power and strength," said Katz, 60, of Annapolis, Md., at the reunion dinner. "Unfortunately we can't afford them any longer. We need more technologically advanced, precision weapons that can inflict damage with no loss of life."
He was one of two former commanding officers of the New Jersey attending the reunion. The other was retired Rear Adm. J. Edward Snyder Jr., of McLean, Va.
Sailors who served under him during the Vietnam War in 1968 and 1969 regard Snyder with great affection as a sailor's sailor.
"I don't know of a man who wouldn't follow Admiral Snyder today," said Ray Kehoe, 64, of Freeport, Ill., who served under Synder in Vietnam. "He always had the crew in mind. Many commanders have nothing but advancement in mind."
Many former sailors still talk about the two swimming pools on deck that Snyder made out of empty gun tubs - one for the sailors and one for himself. "I made them to save the $500,000 cost of removing them (gun tubs) and for crew morale," Snyder said.
Snyder praised the efforts to preserve the battleship and offered to help raise donations for a teak deck replacement project that may cost $6 million to $7 million.
"I think the restoration has been remarkable and it looks the same as when I left except the deck is a bit of mess," he said. "I understand there is no money to fix it right now."
The USS New Jersey Veterans Inc., the nonprofit group representing former crew members, meets privately today to decide where to hold next year's reunion.
At other events aboard the battleship on Saturday, 16 Burlington and Camden County residents who served on the New Jersey received the military service medals issued by their counties. The USS Hornet Club held a memorial service for those lost when the original aircraft carrier to bear that name sank after being struck by Japanese bombs in the Pacific during World War II.
Among the recipients of the awards was Walter Urban, mayor of Medford Township and a former Navy reserve captain who was a public affairs officer at the former Philadelphia Navy Shipyard. He served aboard the New Jersey as a public affairs officer in the 1980s.
Urban said his time on the battleship remains the high point of his career and led him to transfer from the Army to the Navy. In 1985 he snapped Navy photos of the firing of the big guns, whose concussion he described as awesome.
Also, the state Marine Corps League honored the Marine detachments that served aboard the New Jersey with a memorial plaque on a 5-inch gun mount that they used to man beginning with World War II.
Reach Carol Comegno at (609) 267-9486 or email@example.com