From dream to reality: Hard work helped bring battleship to Camden
By CAROL COMEGNO
Chirs LaChall/Courier-Post The USS New Jersey throws a shadow on the Delaware River as it is towed toward the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard early in the morning of Nov. 11. a flotilla of smaller vessels accompanied the battleship as it moved up the river, as thousands of people waited to welcome it home.
Port executive Joseph Balzano stood on the loading docks back in the 1980s, gazed out at the Waterfront in his beloved Camden and dreamed.
A Camden native whose life has been entwined with the river, he envisioned bringing a historic sailing or Navy ship to Camden.
Then in 1989, he and state Assemblyman John Matheussen, R-Gloucester, now a senator, met and began talking about the possibility of a museum ship.
It was not until nine years later in 1998 that others became involved and they created the nonprofit Home Port Alliance.
This dream of Balzano's, executive director of South Jersey Port Corp., was the spark that ignited what many thought was a hopeless effort to win the highly decorated battleship.
"This really started with Joe Balzano's dream. He was the early visionary," said retired Navy Capt. David McGuigan of Haddonfield.
McGuigan was the architect of the winning application and the man most credited by others with getting the Navy on Jan. 20 to announce it had chosen Camden over Bayonne.
Early, loosely organized efforts to get the state battleship commission interested in Camden went nowhere.
The effort crystalized only years later, when South Jersey labor leaders, retired Navy officers, politicians at all levels of government, businessmen, and the mayor of Camden formed the regional Home Port Alliance.
Balzano first tried to get the Mosholu, a tall ship restaurant, for Camden, but it stayed in Philadelphia. Then he tried, but failed, to get a Navy ship built at New York Shipbuilding Corp. in Camden.
He and Matheussen only later struck upon on the idea of getting the New Jersey, which was built across the river in Philadelphia during World War II, with many of the workers coming from South Jersey.
The quest by the South Jersey senator and Balzano was independent from the activities of the now 20-year-old New Jersey Battleship Commission.
Dominated by members from the central and northern parts of the state, the commission was hoping to get the ship on the Navy donation list and place it at a Liberty State Park site in Jersey City near the Statue of Liberty a formidable site with high tourism.
In early 1997, just months before Milton Milan took office as Camden mayor, Matheussen invited him to lunch with Balzano at the Harbor League Club atop the Hudson Engineers building, where they had a commanding view of the river.
"Milan was very interested in the battleship New Jersey. That's when we found out that he had been protected by the battleship off the coast of Lebanon in 1983, when he was in the Marines in Beirut after the attack on the Marines barracks," said Matheussen, the son of a tugboat captain.
The three South Jersey men saw the ship as a way to continue revitalizing the Waterfront.
But then it was discovered, mainly through news accounts, that the battleship commission was going to recommend a Bayonne site because a Liberty State Park berth would require expensive underwater bedrock-blasting.
The Bayonne site at a nearly deserted military terminal did not impress South Jerseyans, who thought the ship should come back to the Delaware River where it was built. It was launched at the former Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in 1942.
A year earlier, Matheussen had approached commission chairman Joseph Azzolina, a Republican assemblyman from Monmouth, about bringing the ship to Camden.
"He told me it would never happen," the senator recalled, "which made me even more determined."
Consideration of Bayonne bothered Camden County Freeholder Pat Jones and prompted her to join the senator, the mayor and Balzano in 1998 in a renewed effort to win the New Jersey.
She obtained a commitment from the freeholders for $3.2 million from the county improvement authority to build a pier for the ship. In addition, a federal empowerment zone board in the city committed $1 million through the urging of member Frank Fulbrook.
Two Navy retirees then came on board in 1998 Rear Adm. Thomas Seigenthaler and Capt. David McGuigan, both of Haddonfield, as well as two U.S. representatives Republican James Saxton and Democrat Robert Andrews.
Seigenthaler had been a commander of the naval shipyard and McGuigan had once headed the naval ship engineering station in Philadelphia.
The informal group decided to call itself the Home Port Alliance and persuaded the battleship commission in July 1998 to come to Camden for a site visit, which occurred July 31.
The Camden slogan for the ship was born: "From birthplace to berthplace."
Matheussen said the turning point came when the Alliance realized the Navy would decide the ship's fate.
``Then we realized we had a chance even if the commission rejected Camden," Matheussen said.
On Aug. 12, 1998 in the Marlton law office of Parker, McCay and Criscuolo attorney Phil Norcross, Balzano and Phil Rowan, executive director of the Camden County Improvement Authority, signed papers establishing the Alliance as a nonprofit corporation.
On Sept. 10, the battleship commission chose Bayonne, though many said they would have preferred Liberty State Park. Camden got only one vote.
Undaunted, the underdog Home Port Alliance decided to challenge the commission and submit its own application to the Navy amid continuing criticism of Camden by Azzolina.
Matheussen said rejection by the commission ``made us work even harder.''
"We had a great site but we had to have a great written application as well," he said.
Initially, there were two major hurdles to bringing the ship to New Jersey getting the historic ship on the Navy's donation list and off inactive reserve status as well as towing it from Washington state and through the Panama Canal before the United States relinquished canal control on Jan. 1, 2000.
Azzolina had been lobbying for years to accomplish both of these feats. The ship was placed on the donation list in 1998, and towed through the canal in 1999.
Home Port Alliance members spent hundreds of volunteer hours on the application and review process. Phil Norcross donated legal services.
The alliance also spent about $122,000 on consultants like Hudson Engineers of Camden and Belt Collins of Honolulu, which had worked on a plan to clean up hazardous materials inside the USS Missouri, a sister ship of the New Jersey.
Eventually, Gov. Christie Whitman promised state money to the winning applicant. She also named the state Department of Military and Veterans' Affairs as a third party to handle the $2 million towing contract and canal passage.
The ship left Bremerton, Wash., on Sept. 12, passed through the canal in October, and arrived at the former Philadelphia Naval Shipyard on Nov. 11, Veterans Day, to the cheers of more than 25,000 people who lined the riverbanks.
Navy Secretary Richard Danzig's announcement came unexpectedly Jan. 20 in the middle of the first snowstorm of the season.
Saxton and Andrews were told to be available for a phone call around 3 p.m. that day. They chose to meet at the old shipyard in Philadelphia. Fifteen minutes later, they announced the decision at a news conference.
A Navy executive committee had unanimously chosen Camden, the Navy said.
Navy officials praised the application as "comprehensive and outstanding" and said it will serve as a model for future applications.
Rowan, now Alliance treasurer, calls the application a masterpiece crafted by McGuigan, who put in thousands of hours without pay writing much of the package.
Azzolina has said he "looks forward to working with the Home Port Alliance to convert the ship into a proper memorial.''
McGuigan said the Alliance now faces the task of accomplishing what it proposed in its 1,700-page plan.
He praised Azzolina's efforts.
"Personally, I can say that we only differed from the battleship commission in where the USS New Jersey should be showcased," he said. "This is certainly a significant project for all citizens of New Jersey and there is a place for everyone in it."