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South Jersey

September 05, 1999

USS New Jersey leaves next Sunday for Philadelphia

Gannett State Bureau

Philadelphia Naval Shipyard

The hull of the USS New Jersey slides backward during the ship's launch on Dec. 7, 1942, in Philadephia.

The USS New Jersey is coming home.

One week from today, the nation's most decorated war ship … 45,000 tons of steel … will begin its slow journey out of Puget Sound in Washington state, through the Panama Canal to a temporary mooring in Philadelphia before returning to the state for which it was named.

Once in its final berth, either Bayonne or Camden … the Navy will decide where this winter … the New Jersey will be granted a well-deserved retirement, converted to a floating museum and memorial celebrating a half-century of service.

"She spanned such an extraordinary period of time, hopefully people will get more familiar with her history," said Gov. Christie Whitman, who might go to Panama next month to watch the New Jersey traverse the canal. "If we do it right when we get her, and we will do it right, the history lesson that can be taught to kids is just extraordinary."

To those who served aboard it, the New Jersey means even more … something Max Allen didn't realize until he was assigned to the ship in 1989. Then a 34- year-old lieutenant commander, he had served as public information officer on a number of naval vessels before.

"When I first went to the New Jersey, it was to me just another normal assignment. It didn't really sink in until I started seeing the many letters from people, from veterans asking to visit the ship and requests for memorabilia," said Allen, who has since retired from active service and is now working as communications director for a Georgia university. "It's about pride. People really love the New Jersey."

Often, he would accommodate groups of veterans who wanted to tour the ship they once served aboard.

"They would talk to the sailors doing the jobs they once did. Gunners' mates who were on the ship in the 1980s and 1990s got to talk to gunners' mates from the 1940s and 1950s," he said. "The younger sailors saw this, the pride the older people had for the ship.

"It was one of the highlights of my naval career to be aboard a ship with that much history, with that much importance, not just in this country, but around the world," said Allen.

The New Jersey was launched on Dec. 7, 1942, a year to the day after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.

With the crash of a champagne bottle across its bow, the ship slid slowly out of the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard on skids lathered with 100,000 pounds of grease and into the Delaware River.

As throngs of onlookers lined the river to get a glimpse, many on the Camden side of the river were swamped by waves caused by launching the USS New Jersey … the second of four Iowa-class ships launched during World War II. The Iowa was completed a few months before the New Jersey. The Wisconsin was christened in 1943, and the Missouri a year later.

Built during the early days of World War II, the New Jersey and its sister ships played front-line roles in virtually every major conflict through the Gulf War … a record of longevity unmatched in modern naval history.

"The analogy would be using ships built for the Spanish-American War during World War II. It's inconceivable," said Paul Stillwell, author of Battleship New Jersey: An Illustrated History and a member of its crew during the 1980s. "New Jersey and the Iowa class was the height of battleship design."

Between 1943 and 1991, when the New Jersey was decommissioned for a final time, the ship saw action in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Lebanon and was in the Persian Gulf just before hostilities began there in 1991.

Armed with nine massive 16-inch guns, the New Jersey could fire a one-ton projectile at a range of up to 23 miles with pinpoint accuracy.

John Bolan of Edison, Sussex County, served as a gun captain aboard the ship during the Korean War, and remembers seeing and hearing those guns go off for the first time. They produced hundred-foot plumes of flame and billowing smoke, earning the New Jersey the nickname "Black Dragon."

"I had been on some pretty big ships, but that wasn't anything like this," said Bolan. "If you were outside on deck, they would make a pretty good blast, that's for sure."

With a top speed of 33 knots (or nearly 40 mph), the New Jersey and its sister ships were the fastest battleships ever built, able to keep pace with aircraft carriers and smaller war ships.

Maneuvering a vessel that fast and that big, more

than 800 feet long, was not like driving the family car, said Tom Ihnken of Pompton Plains, Morris County, who served as quartermaster aboard the New Jersey from 1952-56.

At full speed, it could take a full mile to bring the ship to a complete stop, and the same distance to turn completely around, he said. Ihnken performed some of the most delicate maneuvers.

"Coming in and out of port, coming to anchor, steering alongside the tanker to take on fuel … that was my job," he said. "When you are 19 or 20 years old and have a couple thousand people in your hands, it feels good."

Ihnken was once called on to keep the New Jersey hovering broadside to the mid-ocean wind and waves while a wounded submariner was transferred to the hospital facilities on board.

"We had to put the starboard engine forward, the port engine back, and work the rudders to keep the ship in place. We had to maneuver that way to make the water calm, so they (the submarine) could come alongside and bring the guy up," he said. "That was an experience."

In the 1980s, the New Jersey was refit with cruise missiles and a host of modern weapons, making it again a front-line ship of war. When it was recommissioned in 1982, the New Jersey was the only active battleship in the world.

Soon after going back to sea, it patrolled the coast of El Salvador and in the fall of 1983 provided fire support for the U.S. Marines stationed in Beirut, Lebanon. But for most of the nine years it was again in service, the New Jersey served a symbolic role.

"It was a more a political decision to bring her back than a military one," said Stillwell, the author. "President Reagan came up with the idea in order to rebuild national pride and spirit in the wake of what had been a nadir in the nation's foreign policy."

Restoring the Iowa class ships to active service served its purpose from a policy perspective, although not entirely from a military one, Stillwell says. With the modern Navy oriented around aircraft carriers and air power, the military role for the New Jersey and its sister ships was limited.

"The Navy for a while groped around for missions for these ships, and indeed, there was not a consensus within the Navy as to whether to bring the ship back," Stillwell said.

The huge cost of operating and maintaining these large battlewagons soon caught up with the New Jersey, and the decision was made to decommission it for a final time in 1991. The USS Missouri was the last active Iowa class ship, being decommissioned in 1993.

Even firing the New Jersey's massive boilers for the journey back to its namesake state would cost millions. Consequently, the ship will be towed along its 5,900-mile journey by Sea Victory, a tug specially designed for long-distance ocean trips. Last year, the tug moved the Missouri from the same port in Bremerton, Wash., to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

The trip to Philadelphia is expected to take just under two months. If all goes according to plan, the New Jersey will arrive at the Panama Canal around Oct. 16, and in Philadelphia around Nov. 4.

With a speedy decision coming from the Navy, the ship could be open to visitors by early next year, said Assemblyman Joseph Azzolina, R-Monmouth, who is chairman of the New Jersey Battleship Commission.

When it is, the ship will be something to see, he said.

"It's the last of the line. This is the largest of the battleships that are left," he said. "There is never going to be a ship like that again."

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