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South Jersey

September 06, 1999

Will battleship end up in South Jersey?
USS New Jersey debate continues

US Naval Institute

Camden and Bayonne both want to be thr final home port for the USS New Jersey. The battleship, built and launched in Philadelphia in the early 1940's, was decommissioned for good in 1991. The Navy will decide on a home port by January.

Courier-Post staff

John Horan can hardly wait for the historic battleship USS New Jersey to begin its long tow next week around North and Central America … scheduled to return in November to its Delaware River birthplace.

As the ship prepares to move toward Philadelphia, the Navy continues to weigh which New Jersey city … Camden or Bayonne … will become its final home. A former signalman on its first crew during World War II and one of the the first to buy a commemorative state license plate depicting the ship, the Cherry Hill resident supports the Camden-based Home Port Alliance's effort to keep the ship in the Delaware River as a floating museum … just upriver from where it was built more than 55 years ago.

"This is where she belongs and the location is great," said Horan, 75, holding a small fragment of the ship's original teak deck that he has kept all these years. He talked about making a personal trip to Panama to see the ship through the canal as he did in 1944 on board as a signalman.

While former crew members do not all agree on the final resting place, most concur on one point in this ongoing controversy between Camden and Bayonne: The ship will come home to its namesake state at last.

"What's most important is that it will be in New Jersey where it belongs. That's what I want to see. Of course, I would rather see it in New York Harbor because I live closer and because that area is more populated," said Vincent Falso of Mountainside, Union County, president of the Battleship New Jersey Historical Museum Society.

Strong differences of opinion between ex-crew, other military veterans and politicians over the battleship's final home port is indicative of the intense competition between the two proposed sites the Navy is considering … Camden in the southern part of the state and Bayonne in the more politically powerful north.

U.S. Navy Secretary Richard Danzig said the Navy is evaluating the applications to determine whether they meet "rigorous technical, financial and curatorial requirements."

"Regardless of the outcome of the process, the Navy is confident the battleship will be revered and well cared for by the state of New Jersey," Danzig wrote in a recent letter to several congressmen.

Navy officials are saying nothing publicly about the progress of their review of the two closely guarded, confidential applications to the Navy's Ship Donation Program. But spokesmen for the applicants said the process is in the initial "question and answer" stage. A decision is expected by January. Since the spring, the proposed Camden site on a yet-to-be-built pier near the E-Centre south of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge has quietly gained political momentum in Washington, primarily due to the lobbying efforts of Rep. James Saxton, R-N.J., a member of the House Committee on National Security. Camden has won the support of the U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and 22 congressmen from New Jersey and three surrounding states … Pennsylvania, Delaware and New York. About eight New Jersey congressmen are backing the Bayonne site.

The Navy promises a fair review and a decision based on the merits of the applications, but former Navy officers say both state and Washington politics ultimately may play a part in the decision.

If only one city qualifies technically and financially, the Navy could begin negotiating a contract earlier than its self-imposed January deadline. If both sites qualify, the Navy Executive Advisory Panel will weigh the merits of each proposal and make a recommendation to the Navy secretary, Danzig said in his letter.

Retired Navy Capt. David McGuigan of Haddonfield, president of the Home Port Alliance, said a comparison would mean intense scrutiny of each site's historical significance to the ship, site benefits to the Navy and community support.

"We are very comfortable with our application,'' McGuigan said. ``We believe that we have more things going for Camden than Bayonne does … a freshwater port, more local financial support, a more historically significant site, and more visibility for the Navy since the Philadelphia naval base and shipyard are now closed.''

State battleship commission officials also believe their application will prevail.

"Sometime in November the Navy will wind down the Q‚&‚A and we'll then wait for the Navy to make a decision," commission spokesman Gordon Bishop said.

He said the commission is "more and more optimistic as each week passes" and hailed the Bayonne site because it is near the ``Gateway to America.''

To ensure fairness to both applicants, Republican Gov. Christie Whitman took two steps this year: She first wrote a letter of neutrality in May, reversing her long-held position that she would endorse whatever site was recommended by the battleship commission, which had selected Bayonne. All state monies raised for the ship, which now total about $8 million, would go with the Navy's chosen site.

And to avoid the appearance of favoritism, she appointed the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs to handle the contract for the estimated $2 million tow of the ship from Bremerton, Wash., through the Panama Canal to New Jersey, rather than allow the battleship commission to sign the contract. Nevertheless, the governor will have input into the Navy decision.

"The process will render a recommendation to me, and I will consult with the governor of the state of New Jersey in making a final decision," Navy Secretary Richard Danzig wrote to Saxton and other congressmen in a July 30 letter obtained by the Courier-Post.

Danzig spokeswoman Rita Wilks of the Naval Sea Systems Command said the secretary ``will consult (the governor), but the decision is the secretary's to make."

McGuigan discounts the possible negative impact of the ongoing federal investigation into alleged political corruption by Camden Mayor Milton Milan on the Home Port Alliance's application. Milan was not named to the alliance board until July.

"The Camden City government is not the applicant. The USS New Jersey Memorial will be managed by the Home Port Alliance board of trustees. The alliance is a nonprofit, regional group representing all areas of South Jersey and includes business, labor, elected officials, military veterans and others," he said. The city, which has suffered serious financial problems, never pledged any money to the project, although Camden County freeholders and a federal empowerment zone board have committed $4.2 million to the project.

What does make the Home Port Alliance uneasy is Danzig's intent to consult Whitman before sending his decision to Congress for a 60-day review period. "This is of some concern," McGuigan said. "It could mean the Navy will not make a determination that is not acceptable to the governor. She could also remain neutral and leave the decision to the Navy."

However, state Sen. John Matheuseen, R-Gloucester, a co-founder of the Home Port Alliance, said he believes the governor will not take sides.

Horan believes residents in the central and northern parts of the state have a misconception about the appearance of the Camden-Philadelphia Waterfront.

"They hear only bad things about Camden, how there are poor people and crime. But they've never been to the Camden Waterfront, or to Philly for that matter, and don't realize how beautiful it is, especially between Penn's Landing and Wiggins Park," Horan said.

"What kind of waterfront does Bayonne have?" he said. "It's a former military terminal, much of which is desolate and which can't be seen from the city at all or from most of the harbor.''

Ex-crewman Horan objects to what he calls ``bullying'' by battleship commission chairman Joseph Azzolina, who has criticized the Camden site and leaders of the Home Port Alliance as Johnny-come-latelies. However, Horan and others admit Azzolina must be given much of the credit for bringing the battleship to New Jersey.

"He has dedicated 20 years of his life trying to get it here and you have to admire him as a great man for that," said Joseph Balzano, executive director the South Jersey Port Corp. and one of two new South Jersey members of the state's battleship commission.

Most former crew members from South Jersey favor the Camden site near the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. The USS New Jersey was launched during World War II, later becoming the most decorated ship in U.S. naval history with 16 battle stars. Central and northern Jersey crew members tend to favor the Bayonne site recommended by the state battleship commission last year.

Meanwhile, state officials are proposing a ceremony be held in Panama on board the ship just before it traverses the canal. The battleship commission and the Home Port Alliance both are expected to have delegations at the canal for the ship's Oct. 17 to 20 transit, as well as in Bremerton for the ship's departure, tentatively set for Sept. 12.

"I think it's important we have representation at both places because these are significant events for the ship," said Matheussen.

"The departure is a very big day and a very rewarding one because so much effort has been extended by so many people to get the ship here," said Saxton. He called the endorsement by the secretary of Housing and Urban Development "very significant."

Liz Thomas of the state-hired Thomas Boyd public relations firm of Moorestown said negotiations for a shipboard ceremony began last week in Panama with the U.S. ambassador there and the Panama Canal Commission. That prompted the Navy to send two representatives to the meetings.

Battleship commission spokesman Bishop calls the historic transit of the ship "a great photo op" that would be foolish for Whitman to ignore.

"She is the chief executive but she is also a U.S. Senate candidate and the state will probably pick up the tab for her visit," he said.

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