By KIM MAIALETTI
There were only a few park police around when Dorsey Rhodes arrived at the Camden Waterfront before dawn Sunday, the day the USS New Jersey was moved to its newly constructed pier.
But like most South Jerseyans, Rhodes had no idea of the plans to move the ship. He had risen before the sun to do a little fishing, and the news caught him by surprise.
"It's coming this morning? Get out of here!" exclaimed Rhodes, 62, of Camden. "I've been watching them build this pier since they started. It's one of the greatest ideas they had. I'm going to make it my business to be one of the first ones on that ship."
In what was likely to be its final move, the battleship headed up the Delaware River to the pier behind the Tweeter Center with little of the fanfare that greeted it in the past. About 30 people lined the railing along the promenade near Wiggins Park Marina to witness the historic event. Two years ago, more than 25,000 flocked to the riverbanks to welcome the Big J home.
This time, the Home Port Alliance kept the move secret from the public until it issued a news release just seven hours before the ship's launch. It was the only way the Coast Guard would move the ship after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, alliance members explained.
The morning news sent people scrambling out of bed, grabbing for the nearest pair of sneakers and racing to the Waterfront before the coffee even stopped brewing.
Dennis Penn awoke to television broadcasts trumpeting the news that the ship was on its way to its new home. He quickly made his way to the Waterfront.
"They kept this a secret, didn't they?" said Penn, 50, of Gloucester Township. "It's a shame. For security reasons, I think it's the best thing to do right now. I still don't think we're in the mood to be very celebratory."
The stealthy operation was a letdown for volunteers who expected to ride upriver on the ship's deck.
Tony Altadonna, 79, of Pennsauken, said he was among the first volunteers on the ship when it arrived on Nov. 11, 1999. A volunteer team leader, Altadonna felt betrayed when he turned on the radio Sunday morning to hear a KYW reporter announcing the ship was on the move.
"I worked my heart out for this ship," said Altadonna, who served as an aircraft mechanic during World War II. "I' m not even a Navy man. This is my last look at it and my last trip to it. I wouldn't go on it if they paid me. I lost all interest."
For 31-year-old Paul Knox, the morning was bittersweet. The Williamstown resident, who works as an activities coordinator for the Home Port Alliance, raced to the Waterfront after hearing news of the move.
"I had imagined a little more fanfare," Knox said. "This ship held its head high and went and fought ... I think she could have had her last cruise in the sun."
On Sunday, the ship served not only as a tribute to the heroic deeds of the past, but also as a symbol of impending military action after the deadliest attack ever on U.S. soil.
The sight brought 51-year-old Nancy Robertson of Pennsauken to tears.
"I'm proud to be an American," said Robertson, clutching an American flag. "With the events that occurred in these past two weeks, this is just something patriotic. If this were still activated, I guess it would be part of our fleet that would go and fight this war on terrorism."
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