By CAROL COMEGNO
Each year, hundreds of veterans who served on the battleship USS New Jersey gather for a reunion, but next year's reunion will have a special attraction close to all their hearts.
Former Navy and Marine crew members will be coming here for their annual convention to hold some of the festivities on the historic ship, now the centerpiece of the newly opened Battleship New Jersey Memorial and Museum on the Delaware River.
Richard Esser of Lorain, Ohio, president of Battleship New Jersey Veterans Inc., came to the Camden Waterfront this week with other officers in his group to begin working out the details.
Esser and other ex-crewmen are filled with anticipation about the event.
"This promises to be the largest gathering of crew members we have ever had. It's going to be very emotional," said Esser, a Korean War cook and machinist, who has followed the saga of the ship for years, as have many of the members.
He said he is hoping 700 to 800 will attend the reunion, planned for Sept. 13-16.
It has been 20 years since the group, now with 1,259 members, has been able to have an event on the ship. The last event was in 1981 when the ship was in Long Beach, Calif., being modernized to add missile and other weapon technology.
The New Jersey - the Navy's most decorated battleship with 19 campaign stars since World War II - is one of four Iowa-class ships that remain the most powerful, fastest and largest in the world. It sailed until 1991, languished in the naval reserve fleet for the next eight years and then was retired and donated as a museum.
Esser, association treasurer Richard McDowell and vice president Fred Adams, both of Port Orange, Fla., were thrilled with the work done by the Home Port Alliance, the nonprofit group operating the ship museum. "Man, they cleaned it up beautiful," said Esser.
McDowell, also a Korean War veteran who did deck maintenance, was equally impressed with the new paint job and restoration work. "I give the ship's volunteers a lot of credit, but you can see there's always more work to be done," he said, lamenting the aging deck that has rotted in places. (It is targeted for replacement.)
They also loved the vista from the ship. "That is a great view of Philadelphia and (the Camden Waterfront)," said World War II veteran Adams, once a gunner and "deck ape," a seaman who swabs and cleans the decks.
Adams, who has circulatory problems and walks with a cane, had to rest several times while walking from the parking lot and around the Tweeter Center to the river promenade. He said the alliance should get a jitney.
Alliance Executive Director Thomas Seigenthaler said the group is refurbishing a small school bus that will be operational soon. He also said pier elevators will be installed before Jan. 1.
"We've been trying for two years to get the ship ready so they can come aboard. It's a perfect time. It's all cleaned up and we want to make it special for them," he said.
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