We got the ship!
By CAROL COMEGNO and RICHARD PEARSALL
BRIAN PORCO/Courier-Post Donald Norcross, of the AFL-CIO Southern New Jersey Central Labor Council, and Freeholder Pat Jones, a member of the Home Port Alliance, exult in the news.
The Navy picked Camden on Thursday as the home for the battleship New Jersey, dispatching one of the most decorated ships in naval history to help the economic revival of one of the nation's most impoverished cities.
"Birth to berth," state Sen. John Matheussen, R-Gloucester, exulted at what turned into a victory celebration Thursday at the old Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, alluding to the launch of the battleship there on Dec. 7, 1942.
"The greatest Navy ship in history has come full circle."
The Navy's decision concludes a two-decade effort to bring the USS New Jersey home to its namesake state as well as a shorter, but more spirited, battle between Camden and Bayonne - exposing the ever-present rift between North and South Jersey.
In choosing Camden, the Navy rejected the recommendation of the state-sponsored Battleship Commission, which endorsed the Military Ocean Terminal in Bayonne, just across the harbor from New York City.
The Navy cited Camden's comprehensive plan for exhibits at a developed Waterfront with cultural and tourist attractions. It also noted the Home Port Alliance's plan to add a Navy recruiting office on board the ship at no cost to the Navy.
"The Navy is very confident that the New Jersey will be well cared-for and revered in its new berth on the Delaware River in Camden," Navy Secretary Richard Danzig said in a statement Thursday.
The battleship now becomes a major component in the entertainment-based Waterfront revival upon which Camden hopes to rise from the depths of poverty.
The Navy's decision is not final; Congress has 30 legislative days to review the recommendation and potentially challenge it. South Jersey congressmen said Thursday, however, that Congress has never challenged a Navy donation and is not expected to start now.
In November, more than 25,000 people lined the banks of the Delaware River and Delaware Bay to watch as the USS New Jersey returned to Philadelphia. All cheered, many cried and memories flowed like the river's current.
As word of the Navy's decision reached South Jersey on Thursday, many of those emotions returned.
Mabel Giordano, 83, of Mount Ephraim, a former welder who helped build the battleship, couldn't contain her emotions.
"When I heard it, I screamed," said Giordano, who was sewing a quilt at home when she heard the news.
"I am so happy. I am so thrilled. I'm just . . . I'm bubbling all over. That's just the way I feel. I can't believe that the Navy really saw our side."
Patricia Koloski, mayor of National Park, said the ship will be at home near many of the men and women who built it decades ago.
"I think many of the people in National Park and West Deptford worked on that ship, and they deserve it to be here," Koloski said.
"The day it came up the Delaware River, I looked at so many people crying," Koloski said. "It's something that is a part of the people here."
On Thursday, U.S. Rep. Jim Saxton, a Burlington County Republican, joined U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews, a Camden County Democrat, to receive a call from Danzig, the Navy secretary, at 2:48 p.m. with the Navy's decision.
Addressing "all the people who have worn a uniform," and the Philadelphia shipyard workers who built and maintained the craft over the years, Andrews said, "This one's for you."
Capt. David McGuigan, president of the Home Port Alliance, whose 1,700-page application to host the ship swayed the Navy in Camden's favor, said Thursday:
"I am pleased at the secretary of the navy's announcement to say the least. I expected the Navy would choose Camden for the New Jersey's final berthing because Camden is the most appropriate site."
Assemblyman Joseph Azzolina, chairman of the state commission that recommended Bayonne and who fought for more than 20 years to bring the battleship to New Jersey, sent Camden his congratulations on Thursday.
Azzolina was not present at Thursday's news conference, held inside one of the last remaining Navy facilities in the old Navy yard, but Camden supporters said they want Azzolina to be part of the ship's restoration and future.
He came in for wide and effusive praise from a South Jersey group eager to give him the credit he deserves.
"Joe began this effort more than 20 years ago," Saxton said. "He thought about it every day, and he worked at it every day. We owe him our deep, deep gratitude for two decades of work."
Bayonne Mayor Joseph P. Doria was not so gracious in defeat. "It is clear that election-year politics and pressure from New York and Pennsylvania congressmen influenced the Navy's decision," said Doria, who is also minority leader in the Assembly.
The Navy secretary did not say Thursday what factors, exactly, put Camden's application over the top, saying only that the application submitted by the Home Port Alliance on behalf of Camden was "strong, very strong . . . the strongest application" he had ever seen for a museum.
Several officials at Thursday's press conference at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard offered their own theories - the accessibility of the site, its visibility and the ship's history, as strong factors.
"We didn't ask him for details," Andrews said. "When someone calls you and says 'You won,' you don't ask questions, you just say 'Thank you, sir.' "
Saxton said he hoped the battleship could be towed to New Jersey and opened to the public "in time for the GOP convention in Philadelphia," which begins in July.
Camden County Freeholder Pat Jones, a director of the Home Port Alliance - the coalition of political officials, civic leaders, veterans and others that lobbied for the Camden site and is now in charge of seeing it through to fruition - said that a "year from July" is probably a more realistic estimate of an opening date.
In addition to preparing the ship for public display, the coalition plans to build a 650-foot pier in the Delaware, connected by a 250-foot footbridge to the Waterfront, a plan designed to more nearly replicate the look of a ship at sea. That project alone is expected to take $4.5 million of the $13 million the Home Port Alliance has budgeted for the project.
Philadelphia Mayor John Street applauded the Navy's decision, saying, "This attraction will fit well into ongoing plans to have our two cities share the same waterfront."
Philadelphia's support was as helpful to the Camden site. Similarly, New York City's opposition to the Bayonne site apparently hurt that city's proposal. New York congressmen complained that the Bayonne site would be too close to its own naval ship museum, the aircraft carrier USS Intrepid.
In New Jersey, eight North Jersey congressmen advocated Bayonne, and three South Jersey congressmen endorsed Camden. Ultimately, the less densely populated southern tier prevailed over the more politically powerful north.
Standing Thursday at the stern of the ship, a vantage point that reveals the massive girth of a ship more recognizable for its three-football-field length, a group of officials gave the "Big J" a ceremonial salute for the cameras.
The New Jersey itself, one of the most decorated warships in American history, remained silent as its fate was announced.
As snow fell steadily on its gray decks, and after everyone had left, its only companion was an old aircraft carrier moored next to it, which is destined to be scrapped.
Today the "Big J" is moored not far from where it was launched Dec. 7, 1942. It has been there since Nov. 11, after completing a 5,800-mile journey under tow from the Navy's mothball fleet in Bremerton, Wash.
Legend has it that when the hull of the ship was launched, it surged across the river and touched the banks of its namesake state before it was hauled back for work on its interior and superstructure, which was completed six months later.
Now it is pointed toward New Jersey again, ready to be towed to Camden.
At least the initial work on the ship will most likely be done at the former Navy yard, then completed in Camden.
A number of people came in for praise at Thursday's news conference, for contributions both past and present. In the latter category were all those who "helped build or maintain the ship."
Donald Norcross, the head of the AFL-CIO Southern New Jersey Central Labor Council, saluted the working men and women who helped build the battleship in the solemn year following the attack on Pearl Harbor, saying, "Your ship is coming home. Soon you'll be back on the ship you built and maintained."
Also singled out for praise were McGuigan and Rear Adm. Thomas Seigenthaler, the "brains" behind the Home Port Alliance application. Both are retired naval officers from Haddonfield who knew how to tell the Navy why Camden was the spot.
Camden County has pledged $3.2 million to the battleship. The state will contribute $6 million. The balance of the funding will be raised from other public and private sources.
On Thursday, Gov. Christie Whitman said her administration is committed to help prepare the ship for the public's enjoyment.
"I think she's going to do just fine in Camden," Whitman said. "She would have done well in Bayonne. She'll do just fine in Camden."
The decision, announced by the Navy secretary - but really the work of a board that rules on applications to take over Navy ships - was unanimous, Andrews and Saxton said.
There are 51 inactive ships berthed at the old Navy yard, now known officially as the Philadelphia Naval Business Center. Drivers can see some of them, including some large supply ships, from Interstate 95 on their way to and from the Philadelphia International Airport.
Soon there will be just 50.
Staff writers Angela Rucker and Gene Vernacchio, and the Gannett State Bureau contributed to this report.