Residents united to bring ship to Camden
By KATHY HENNESSY
It was an effort that brought together South Jerseyans of all stripes: The campaign to bring the USS New Jersey to Camden.
First, there were petitions, rallies and blue ribbon campaigns. Then, tens of thousands of residents lined the banks of the Delaware River in November for the ship's return to Philadelphia.
The show of support helped convince the Navy the warship belongs here and not in Bayonne, in North Jersey.
But what was it about the battleship that united residents of South Jersey, a region often said to be without a strong identity?
Those who joined the effort say it was a combination of local pride and tradition, the competition with our neighbors to the north, patriotism and a sense of nostalgia for the days when Camden was a thriving city.
"My impression is there are very few people in this region without a link to shipbuilding," said Camden County Freeholder Pat Jones, who serves on the Home Port Alliance, which lobbied for Camden and will oversee and operate the battleship museum. "The ship is a link to our past, which many people need to be reminded about, and it's a link to our future."
Bob Walters of Cinnaminson, a Navy veteran who served on the ship from 1955 to 1957, said much of the excitement was simply due to old-fashioned patriotism.
"That was our pride coming up the river. It was American pride. It was every mother's son that was in the service," said Walters, of the ship's journey up the Delaware.
State Sen. John Matheussen, R-Gloucester, said South Jerseyans greeted the battleship like a war hero coming home.
"A battleship has a certain mystique a certain aura about it," Matheussen said. "Because it's named after our state, whether or not you are a veteran, whether young or old, a lot of people hold it dear.''
Others believe a strong sense of competition helped cement support
for the ship.
"Southern Jersey has a bit of an identity crisis. Anything to do with North Jersey and they are up for a fight," said Paul Barrett of Runnemede, president of the Blue Ribbon Committee, which blanketed the area with ribbons supporting the designation of Camden as the battleship's permanent home.
``People like to rally about something together as a group. It was
about pride and respect," Barrett said. ``I've never seen anything like it as long as I've lived here."
A desire to give a lift to Camden, one of the nation's poorest cities, also helped unite residents, said Richard Harris, director of the Sen. Walter Rand Institute, a public-policy think tank at Rutgers-Camden.
"There are a lot of folks who live throughout South Jersey and have very fond memories of Camden.
There was a certain nostalgia that helped galvanize folks," Harris said.
Observing his students and local families on the day of the battleship's arrival in Philadelphia, Jeffery Dorwart, a professor of history at Rutgers-Camden, saw the emotions the ship evokes.
"I sat on the river and watched grandfathers and fathers explaining to children. It became a kind of floating history lesson," Dorwart said.
He said he believes many South Jerseyans share the bond his students felt with the ship.
They were most impressed with the size and majesty of the New Jersey, one of the Navy's most decorated warships. "When my students saw the battleship, they said, `Wow, that's a really big ship' and `It's beautiful,'‚" Dorwart said. "It's a very impressive ship."
Many who participated in the battleship campaign are hopeful the unity the ship fostered will have a lasting impact on the region.
"It demonstrated to the region, that yes, we can act as a region and we can accomplish a lot," said Harris, whose institute wants to help South Jersey better define itself. "It is a self-esteem boost. To show we can create a positive vision of the region."