By CAROL COMEGNO
With the nation in a new war, an old warrior was reborn Sunday as the Battleship New Jersey Memorial and Museum opened with rousing patriotic pomp that brought cheers as well as tears.
Acting Gov. Donald DiFrancesco and other dignitaries said the refurbished Navy warship - the nation's most highly decorated battleship - is now more than a past symbol of strength and sacrifice. And it is more than a new tourist and educational attraction for the city, state and nation, they said.
"The event today comes at a time when our fighting ships are out at sea again, and though she has fired her last shot, maybe this lasting symbol of education and freedom will serve as an inspiration in the country's fight against terrorism from abroad," DiFrancesco said.
The acting governor was on board the ship for part of its tow through the Panama Canal in 1999 en route back to New Jersey from Washington state.
DiFrancesco said the battleship will also serve as an economic stimulus to create jobs for Camden.
"The ship is right for Camden, and Camden is right for the ship," he told a grand opening crowd of nearly 1,000. As he spoke, the ship's 16-inch gun turrets loomed above him.
Sunday's event was for invited guests, with the public opening scheduled today.
The state paid about $2 million to have the ship towed from Bremerton, Wash., to Philadelphia and an additional $6 million for renovations. The state is also preparing to give $7.2 million more for further restoration, including opening more sections of the ship.
Dressed in red, white and blue bunting along railings that stretch along all 887 feet of the ship's length, and dotted with American flags and colorful signal pennants, the refurbished battleship hosted volunteers, former crewmen, former shipyard workers who helped build it in in Philadelphia and organizations connected with the ship.
The public can tour the ship today from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Resting in the Delaware River, the ship offers a spectacular view of the Philadelphia skyline.
With the ship's unveiling coming as the country is bombing Afghanistan in retaliation for the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks that killed more than 5,000, many speakers referred Sunday to the national crisis and the New Jersey's past connections to acts of war.
The New Jersey, also known as BB-62 or the Big J, was launched from the former Philadelphia Naval Shipyard on Dec. 7, 1942 - the first anniversary of the Japanese sneak attack at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
In 1983, during the Beirut conflict, one of its crewman, radar technician Michael Gorchinski of Lemon Grove, Calif., was killed when Syrian terrorists blew up a U.S. Marines Barracks in Beirut, Lebanon. He had gone there to help fix radar equipment and was waiting to return to the ship. Gorchinski's father, Ben, of Pleasantville in Atlantic County, was on board Sunday.
"This is a very emotional day for me. I am proud to be an American and I feel like Mike is still here as part of the ship," he said, dabbing his eyes with a handkerchief.
In its nearly 60-year life span, the battleship also fought in three major wars - World War II, Korea and Vietnam. In April, the Navy added three campaign stars for Beirut and later Persian Gulf duty, bringing the total to 19 stars.
"Welcome home, New Jersey," said state Sen. John Matheussen, R-Gloucester. "From Dec. 7, 1942, to Oct. 14, 2001 - from birth to berth. May you be a teacher, a reverent memorial and a symbol of America's freedom for yesterday, today and tomorrow."
He and Camden County Surrogate Patricia Jones praised volunteers for their efforts in the ongoing million restoration. Matheussen and Jones are co-chairs of the Home Port Alliance, the nonprofit South Jersey group to which the Navy awarded the ship in January 2000.
"Right now, I would like to reach out and embrace every one of you," Jones said to the supporters and volunteers who have helped on the ship project. "How often do people see dreams come true?
"Let this ship help us step bravely into the future," Jones said, acknowledging most Americans fear further terrorism.
For Camden, the nation's second-poorest city, the ship is touted as an economic stimulus.
"This is a wonderful day for the city and the great state of New Jersey," said Camden Mayor Gwendolyn Faison.
She predicted the ship will have a greater economic impact than anyone envisions.
A moving rendition of "Proud to be an American" by Michael Jones, a singer from Washington Township, brought the crowd to its feet and some audience members to tears. The program also ended emotionally with the crowd joining in the singing of "God Bless America" accompanied by the 63rd Army Band of the New Jersey National Guard.
Assemblyman Joseph Azzolina, R-Monmouth, chairman of the New Jersey Battleship Commission and its fund-raising foundation, took the opportunity to announce that his groups would give more money for the ship.
"Today, we're donating a quarter of a million dollars to launch a Light-the-Ship campaign on Dec. 7, 2001, to bring the New Jersey alive for everyone to see - night and day," he said.
The alliance plans exterior lighting by a world-renowned designer, which will cost about $1 million. The alliance must find about $800,000 more elsewhere.
"We're here today to bind the people of New Jersey as one - one people, one battleship. What a proud and glorious moment, for all of us as we pay tribute to a great warrior," Azzolina said. His call for unity was a reference to the heated competition in years past between Camden and Bayonne, which Azzolina favored, to host the ship's permanent berth.
"And you were right, it is a great view of the Waterfront. ... And how beautiful she looks as you drive down from the state Aquarium," he said.
A former Navy reserve captain who spent several months on the ship during the Beirut crisis in 1983, Azzolina was praised by DiFrancesco and others for the battleship commission's nearly 20-year effort to bring the ship to New Jersey.
Retired Navy Capt. David McGuigan, the first alliance president, said the ship should serve as the "keystone" in developing a Waterfront in the early stages of a renaissance.
"You and I collectively must carry out the mission in the alliance statement we put in our application to the Navy - to create innovative programs that will bring economic progress to the city and have an economic impact on the region," McGuigan said.
McGuigan is the individual most credited with winning the ship for the alliance and Camden.
Also attending were Sens. Robert Torricelli and Jon Corzine, both D-N.J.; Rep. James Saxton, R-N.J.; and Rep. Robert Andrews, D-N.J. All but Corzine, who took office after Camden won the ship, helped in the effort to bring the New Jersey to the Waterfront.
"If you doubt America's ability to defend ourselves, just look at this great ship," Torricelli said. "As it is a warning to our adversaries, let it be a comfort to you."
Many speakers praised the volunteers who helped renovate and repair the ship the past year as part of a $22 million museum project that was financed mostly with public funds from the state, county and federal government.
As people approached the ship along the Camden Waterfront promenade, they walked down its new but still unfinished $11 million pier and by the $1 million dockside visitor center, where tourists will begin buying tickets today.
Greeting guests were the voices of sailor-suit-clad singers of the Harmony show choir from the Main Stage Center for the Arts in Gloucester Township.
Former members of the original World War II John Horan of Cherry Hill and Russell Collins of Palymra helped restore the ship.
"She's been changed around a lot inside since World War II, but she still looks a great," said Collins.
Sam Mastrogiacomo, 78, of Washington Township, worked on the ship as a trainee at the Navy yard and is now a volunteer.
"I feel I'm a part of the ship," Mastrogiacomo said. " Sailors say the ship has a soul, and I am getting to believe it myself."
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