05, 1999 |
New Jersey leaves next Sunday for Philadelphia
By ARON PILHOFER
Gannett State Bureau
The USS New Jersey
is coming home.
The hull of the USS New Jersey slides backward during the
ship's launch on Dec. 7, 1942, in Philadephia.
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
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
To those who served
aboard it, the New Jersey means even more
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
"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
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
a record of longevity unmatched in modern naval
"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
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
"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
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
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
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."