By CAROL COMEGNO
While the nation is engaged in a new conflict, a naval warrior that fought in three major wars becomes a floating museum and memorial today. And the threat of new terrorist attacks makes extra security measures necessary.
The long-awaited opening of the battleship USS New Jersey as a tourist attraction on the Camden Waterfront caps a multimilion-dollar project and ends more than 20 years of effort to bring the ship home to its namesake state.
Today's grand opening is by invitation only. About 1,700 dignitaries, former crew members and volunteers were invited, and at least 500 are expected to attend.
On Monday, following a brief ribbon-cutting ceremony at 8:30 a.m., the public will get its first chance to share the experience and tour various parts of the 887-foot ship, including a massive turret where sailors loaded shells into the New Jersey's 16-inch guns; an eerily lit combat engagement center now manned by lifelike mannequins; the admiral's bridge; the enlisted men's galley; and a room filled with exhibits about the nation's most decorated and longest-serving battleship.
"We want to show off the ship and are proud of the work everyone has done," said retired Rear Adm. Thomas Seigenthaler, executive director of the Home Port Alliance, the nonprofit South Jersey group in charge of the ship.
Acting Gov. Donald DiFrancesco planned to participate in today's ceremonies, as well as several former governors and state and federal lawmakers, officials said. President Bush and the U.S. Navy secretary were invited but will not attend.
Seigenthaler said security will be tight, tight, especially after Thursday's FBI warning of possible terrorism within days somewhere in the U.S. or at a U.S. facility abroad. State police, the Coast Guard and city and Camden County Park Police will provide security.
Visitors today and in the future will be subject to scans with hand-held metal detectors and also may be searched. Admission will be denied to anyone carrying a bag of any sort, including purses and camera bags, said Patricia Jones, co-chairman of the alliance.
Because tours will require climbing up steep stairs, families may not want to bring infants or very small children, the alliance said.
"It is our hope that by putting these issues in front of the public, they will have a safe and enjoyable visit. This is a historic naval vessel with all of the constraints that go with it," Jones said.
The opening comes a week after the U.S. and Great Britain began bombing Afghanistan, the home in exile of self-avowed terrorist Osama Bin Laden, in response to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.
The USS New Jersey was launched on Dec. 7, 1942, the one- year anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
It came home to the Delaware River for the last time in 1999, when it was pulled out of mothballs and towed from Bremerton, Wash., through the Panama Canal to Philadelphia while the Navy considered two cities for its final site - Camden and Bayonne.
On Jan. 20, 2000, the Navy chose Camden by awarding the Big J to the Home Port Alliance, calling its application superior to a proposal by the New Jersey Battleship Commission to berth the ship in Bayonne.
Built at the former Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, the New Jersey is one of four ships of the Iowa class - the largest of all U.S. battleships.
It fought in World War II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War as well as in the Beirut crisis in 1983-84, earning 19 campaign stars. The final three were added during a review this year of its performance.
About $22 million has been spent so far to repair the ship, build a new T-shaped pier and erect a temporary visitor center behind the Tweeter Center between Clinton Street and Mickle Boulevard. Public money from the state, federal government, Camden County and port and economic development agencies financed most of the project.
The alliance had hoped to open the ship by Labor Day but encountered several delays in permitting and construction.
The ship's final move - from a repair site in South Camden to its new and permanent berth on the Camden Waterfront - was to have been held with great fanfare. But because of security concerns stemming from the Sept. 11 attacks, the New Jersey's last voyage, a distance of 1.5 miles, was kept secret until a few hours before it occurred on Sept. 23. Final preparations were made secretly because the Coast Guard wanted to avoid recreational river traffic and large crowds.
Today's event will mark the first public celebration of the ship's new life, and will include a performance by an Army band, speeches, a reception and tossing of a wreath.
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