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South Jersey

July 8, 1999

Ship a step closer to home

AL SCHELL/Courier-Post

Gov. Christie Whitman talks with Assemblyman Joseph Azzolina, R-Monmouth, after she signed a document Wednesday in Trenton to bring the USS New Jersey back home.

Gannett State Bureau

TRENTON - Korean War veteran Robert Walters and about 40 other sailors who served aboard the USS New Jersey watched Wednesday as Gov. Christie Whitman signed documents authorizing the state to take possession of the battleship.

The 62-year-old veteran from Moorestown said he would volunteer to work on the vessel if it's docked in Camden. He said the ship always has attracted big crowds.

"Whenever it came into port, it was awe-inspiring," Walters said. "It created a lot of attention."

The ceremonial documents signed by Whitman clear the way for the battleship - launched December 7, 1942 - to be towed from its berth at the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard in Bremerton, Wash. The relocation is expected to cost $2 million.

Camden, Bayonne and Jersey City are vying to take the vessel and create a tourist attraction. The Navy is expected to make a decision by January.

Todd Busch, contracts manager for Crowley Marine Services, which will tow the ship, said the battleship is scheduled to leave Puget Sound Sept. 13. It is slated to arrive at the Panama Canal Oct. 17, and dock at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard Nov. 4.

State lawmakers who have been fighting to have the battleship dock in their respective parts of the state appeared to call a truce during Wednesday's ceremony at the War Memorial building in Trenton.

Assemblyman Joseph Azzolina, R-Monmouth, chief supporter of the Bayonne site, and Sen. John J. Matheussen, R-Gloucester, who led efforts on behalf of Camden, stood on either side of Whitman as she signed the documents.

"The 'Big J' provided firepower for freedom and was a catalyst in the nation's march toward liberty and prosperity," Whitman said. "It is only fitting that the USS New Jersey should return home as a tribute to the thousands of New Jerseyans who fought for their country."

Azzolina, who was chairman of the USS New Jersey Battleship Commission, later looked over a 14-foot replica of the ship with Whitman. "My major achievement in life is getting that ship back to New Jersey," Azzolina said.

The battleship commission recommended last fall that the ship be berthed at the Military Ocean Terminal in Bayonne, but a lawsuit was brought by Camden County to challenge that decision. The suit is pending.

Also attending the ceremony were 20 members of the Home Port Alliance, wearing white T-shirts emblazoned with the alliance's logo. The alliance wants the ship in Camden.

Thomas Ihnken, of Morris County, another Korean War and USS New Jersey veteran, said Thursday he didn't care where in New Jersey the ship eventually docks. Ihnken said he just wants to bring his family to see it.

"I'll be able to take my grandchildren and children aboard and let them know where I spent four years," Ihnken said.

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