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South Jersey

May 25, 1998

Ship like no other, says yard veteran

Courier-Post staff

War stories abound about the most decorated ship in America's history … the USS New Jersey. But John Borek's favorite yarn is set on the Philadelphia waterfront, not the high seas. Borek praises the unique contribution of ladies' nylons as he spins a tale about the battleship's construction during World War II. Borek, a Winslow resident, was one of 70,000 workers at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard during World War II. He helped build many ships, but the New Jersey and its sister ship, the USS Wisconsin, were the biggest projects of the wartime facility. As a sheet metal worker, he remembers sanding the brass-covered, steel shelving on the ship's magazine elevator, used to carry silk bags of gunpowder to an upper deck for loading. The shelves had to be smooth to minimize danger of an explosion from friction. So what does all this have to do with women's stockings? `We used to pull nylons over the brass to see if they would catch on anything and get any runs,' says Borek. `That way we knew there were still some rough spots. I don't know where the nylons ever came from, but we went through more than a few pairs.' Borek, now 79, enjoys recounting his 32-year shipbuilding career. `I think about it and talk about it all the time. So much so that my wife gives me hell for repeating myself,' he says. `But it is a big memory, a big part of my life.' `The New Jersey was a very beautiful ship inside,' he says. `They will never build another ship like that again. A lot of great craftsmanship and great safety features went into her.' Borek recalls many details about the construction of the `Big J,' including 12-hour shifts worked around the clock. `When it was first built, they started to install linoleum,' he recalls. `But when they found out it was a fire hazard, they stripped it off.' Bulkheads also underwent a last-minute change. `It was supposed to have all aluminum bulkheads below, but they ran out of aluminum because they needed it to make airplanes for the war effort,' says Borek. `So they changed all the bulkheads to steel, which increased the weight of the ship maybe 6,000 tons. Then they had to reinforce the deck with more steel beams on account of the extra weight.' Borek also recalls the ship's launch on Dec. 7, 1942, as a near calamity. `When it hit the water, it made a tidal wave that went all the way over to National Park on the Jersey side of the Delaware,' says Borek. `We had never launched a ship so big (it displaces 45,000 tons of water), so this was not expected. It got away from the tugs and was headed straight for the opposite shore, but somehow they were finally able to turn her. `Otherwise, it would have gone right across the river and beached itself. That would have been pretty embarrassing.' Edgar Hill, 78, of Westville, also has an anecdote about that wave. Hill was aboard as a member of its original crew. Watching from the National Park riverfront that day was Emily Thomas, his future wife. `A stern wave from the ship's launching came right across the river,' says Hill. `When it reached National Park, it came over her head and she got soaked.'

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