By MICHAEL T.BURKHART
Joe Cesare got all choked up when he spotted the USS New Jersey docked on the Camden Waterfront.
This weekend was the first time the Navy veteran from Elmira, N.Y., had seen the Big J in more than 55 years. The last time he laid eyes on the battleship, the nation was embroiled in World War II.
"Everything is beautiful," said Cesare, 80, who served as an electrician on the ship from 1942 to 1944. "It's hard to look at it and not choke up."
Sunday's invitation-only opening of the most decorated battleship in Navy history drew hundreds of veterans, many of them members of USS New Jersey Veterans Inc., who served on board during World War II as well as conflicts in Korea, Vietnam and Lebanon.
The New Jersey opens to the public this morning.
Edward Zaremba, 77, of Atkinson, N.H., hoped to find his old bunk room near the middle of the ship. But the hatch was sealed, the area still off-limits.
He remembers the first time he saw the ship at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, back in 1943, seven weeks before it was commissioned. The thing he remembers most is the ship's sheer enormity.
"When I saw the New Jersey, I said, `God has been good to me,'" said Zaremba, who served as an aft lookout. "I knew I was coming home alive."
Zaremba said he wished the ship would have been turned into a museum when it was decommissioned a decade ago. Instead, it deteriorated in storage before a decision was made to award the ship to New Jersey, and eventually the Home Port Alliance, the nonprofit group overseeing its its restoration in Camden.
"She looks wonderful," Zaremba said as he waited to board. "They did a beautiful job."
Joe DiMaria, of Virginia Beach, Va., served as a boiler technician from 1967 to 1969 during the Vietnam War. The steamy Southeast Asia weather made working in the steam boiler rooms even hotter than usual.
"Back then, the New Jersey was the biggest battleship around," said DiMaria, 57, who spent 30 years in the Navy. " Our commanding officer did what he wanted to do with it. It was there for a purpose and it served that purpose."
He saw the ship again in the 1980s and 1990s and was always impressed with its mass and power. The ship looks as good as ever, he said, taking in the view from the walkway near the Tweeter Center.
"It's just a pretty ship," he said. "When it pulls into port, people look at it."
Hank Dlugosz, 73, of Metuchen, was transferred to the New Jersey from the USS Missouri in February 1947, so he was familiar with the ship's size. The Missouri is from the same class of battleships as the New Jersey - the Iowa class, the biggest ever built at 887 feet long.
Sunday was the first time he had seen the New Jersey since 1947.
"It's still awesome," said Dlugosz, whose job on board was to help make drinking water from ocean water. "I just imagine all the guys who served on her."
With a crew of more than 3,000 people, most men knew few people outside their division. The ship, he said, was like a floating city.
The New Jersey helped give Americans the freedoms they enjoy today, said Robert H. Yancey Sr., past commander of the state Department of Disabled American Veterans. It's good to see the ship returned to its former glory, he said.
"It's fantastic," said Yancey, 76, who was on the New Jersey as it passed through the Panama Canal on its way home from Washington state two years ago. "This is something we've been looking forward to for a long time. We finally got it where we want it."
The ship's opening also brought people who helped build it 60 years ago across the Delaware River in the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.
Leslie R. Heselton, 81, of Annapolis, Md., was a technician at the Navy yard who helped install the ship's fire suppression systems. He last saw the ship before it left for the coast of Lebanon in the early 1980s.
"People had a good sense of patriotism," he said, standing on the deck looking out over the Camden port area. "They wanted to get it built."
Bill Schill, 86, of Barrington, was an instructor in the Navy Yard's metal shop. He had top secret clearance from the government, working on the ship's storage areas inside the hull.
He remembers looking at the half-built ship in the dry dock and wondering how it would ever float with all that armor plating.
"Some of the armor plating is 16 inches thick," he said. "But the guys who designed it knew what they were doing. It's one of those things in life you ask, `How could it be possible?'"
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