July 31, 1998
God, I never saw a ship that big'
By CAROL COMEGNO
size of the battleship USS New Jersey was mind-boggling 55 years
B It is nearly as long as three football fields
and wider than any other ship of its kind ever built.
Its nine 16-inch guns - the biggest in the
Navy fleet - loomed over the deck.
World War II veterans who first served on
the spanking new battleship may have fading memories of all they
did aboard her, but they remember how overwhelmed they were at
the first glimpse of the ship that was launched at the Philadelphia
Naval Shipyard on Dec. 7, 1942 - a year after the Japanese attack
on Pearl Harbor.
The Iowa-class battleship - the biggest ever
built by the U.S. - was like a small city with a crew of more
than 3,000 and enough firepower to daunt any enemy.
"I looked, and said, 'My God, I never
saw a ship that big,' " recalled Russell Collins Jr., a
recruit fresh out of training who joined the ship in Norfolk
after it was commissioned in Philadelphia on May 23, 1943.
"Being from Jersey and being on its namesake
ship, I felt proud of it," said Collins, an original crew
member now living in Palmyra. "I was also glad to have all
that armor around me. If I were to be at sea in war, that was
the ship to be on."
John Horan of Cherry Hill, another original
crew member who has a piece of the original wooden deck and was
among the first to buy the new battleship license plate in 1996,
said he viewed life on the ship as an exciting adventure because
most crew members were teen-agers.
About 80 percent of the crew were rookie seamen
serving on their first ship and, in most cases, their only ship
during World War II.
Despite that inexperience, the ship became
the most decorated battleship in U.S. history with 16 battle
stars. During World War II, it earned nine battle stars, never
experienced a direct enemy hit and never suffered a single casualty.
Its battles included the Philippine Sea, Leyte Gulf, Luzon, all
in the Philippines; Iwo Jima, Okinawa and the Marshall Islands.
In a Jan. 25, 1945, telegram that Adm. William
Halsey directed be read over the ship's loudspeakers, he praised
the crew for having driven the enemy off the sea.
"I am so proud of you that no words can
express my feelings. Superlatively well done," he wrote.
The "Big J," as she was called,
was so huge that a sailor never knew most of the crew.
He often worked and played with the same group
Shipboard experiences varied with duty stations.
Collins was a machinist who spent most of
his time below in the No. 1 engine room, sweating in 100-degree-plus
temperatures amid the deafening noise of machinery.
When he was not on duty, eating or sleeping,
he was topside getting fresh air, always hanging out on one part
of the deck with his buddies.
Horan was a signalman. During the naval battles,
he often had a bird's-eye view of ships such as the aircraft
carrier Princeton sinking and planes flying over, sometimes crashing
into the sea.
"Get 'em, get 'em, get 'em, was what
they yelled when we knocked out a Japanese plane coming at us.
When he would be knocked down, everybody would cheer.
"For the most part, it was a great duty
assignment on the signalmen's bridge. We used lights a lot to
signal because of radio silence," he said.
He often saw the admirals on board when the
USS New Jersey was a flagship.
"Adm. Halsey would sit right in front
of the signal bridge in an area encased in glass," he said.
Collins vividly remembered one incident involving
Halsey, who got into a canteen line just like all the other sailors.
"An officer of the ship came down and
tried to start his own line because the one we were in was so
long. Halsey called him over and told him in no uncertain terms
where the end of the line was," said Collins.
Horan said the deck got hit with shrapnel,
but only rarely during its two years in the Pacific.
"We had a few sailors hit with shrapnel
but not seriously. When the carrier Franklin was firing its guns
at night, a Jap bomber strafed our superstructure. Another signalman,
Vincent Carbone of Boston, got hit in the face with shrapnel,"
Unlike Horan and Collins, Edgar Hill, 73,
of Westville, was experienced. He was an electrician who was
transferred from the smaller battleship Alabama and his skills
often took him to many parts of the ship.
He described life aboard ship as "days
of pure monotony highlighted by a few short days of pure nerve-racking
anxiety when we were in a battle."
For work, they wore blue shirts, blue bell-bottom
dungarees and black shoes.
The work schedule was demanding: four hours
on duty and eight hours off.
"It was rough at first but after a while
you got used to taking cat naps," he said.
When the ship took a recreation breather from
the war, crewmen recalled, it headed to an island known as Mog-Mog,
which was reached via landing craft.
The crew raised the flags, swam with their
sneakers on to keep from getting cut by coral and often played
baseball on the coarse sand beaches.
They described ship chow as first-rate and
often ate meals of turkey, chicken, liver and ham.
Every Wednesday and Sunday, however, the menu
was baked beans, corn bread and coffee.
The print shop produced fancy menus on holidays
as well as a weekly newspaper. On Sundays, separate Protestant
and Catholic services were held either in the mess or on deck.
While the crew ate food off metal trays, high-level
officers ate from china plates with silverware made by the Tiffany
Co. of New York City. (The silver is now at Drumthwacket, the
governor's mansion in Princeton.)
The crew slept on bunks hung from chains.
"They were five bunks high and I was
on the bottom, so everyone else had to step on mine to get to
the top," said Collins.
During battles there was no sleep.
"We often fired both the 5-inch and 16-inch
guns during battles. My battle station was the No. 5 5-inch gun
to stand by for possible repair," said Hill.
"When you are way down here below deck,
you feel a heck of a thump and a vibration that goes through
the ship when the 16-inch guns go off," he said.
Ear protection in those days was holding your
hands over your ears, he said.
Collins, whose battle stations varied from
loading ammunition into a 20mm machine gun topside to a gun turret
powder room below, remembered feeling like a rag doll as buttons
popped off sailors' shirts during the firing.
A USS New Jersey veteran of another era, former
turret officer Robert Lian, 45, of Westampton, can attest to
He was seven stories down inside gun turret
No. 2 giving firing procedure orders when the ship was in the
Mediterranean Sea off Lebanon just before and after 218 Marines
were killed in a bombing in Beirut in 1983.
"With all the machinery running to operate
the guns, you don't hear the gunfire as much as you feel the
air pressure from the firing, which feels like somebody pushing
you. The pressure has broken windows on deck and even torn metal
fittings off parts of the deck," he said.
But he would not trade that experience for
anything, saying there was much pride in being a battleship sailor.
"I didn't find this out until I got on
a battleship, but there is a spirit and camaraderie that doesn't
often exist on other ships," he said.
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