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Thursday, August 11, 2005Past Issues - S | M | T | W | T | F | S
South Jersey

September 11, 1999

USS New Jersey's past and future honored

CHRIS LaCHALL/Courier-Post

USS New Jersey veteran Jerry Gray of Spotswood, Middlesex County, and his wife, Betty, attend ceremonies honoring the battleship Friday in Bremerton, Wash.

Gannett State Bureau

BREMERTON, Wash. - In two ceremonies that were often emotional to several generations of Navy veterans watching them, the battleship New Jersey was blessed and symbolically cast off Friday to a new life as a floating museum and monument to those who served their country.

"This ceremony marks the end of the New Jersey's great military career, and acknowledges the beginning of an even greater chapter in her history as a reminder to all of us and the people of New Jersey and the youth of America as a memorial to what we've done as a nation and what we need to do as a nation in the future," said Navy Capt. Roy Chapple, chief of staff of the Navy's Pacific Northwest Command.

The "Big J" begins the long trek to Philadelphia on Sunday at the end of a towline. It is scheduled to go through the Panama Canal in October and reach Philadelphia around Nov. 5. It will stay there until the Navy decides whether Bayonne or Camden will become its final home. That's expected around the end of the year.

"It's finally here," said Joseph Azzolina, chairman of the USS New Jersey Battleship Commission, his voice choked with emotion. He has worked since the 1960s to bring the New Jersey to its namesake.

Azzolina, an assemblyman representing Monmouth County and a retired Navy captain, told of how he tried for 40 years to be assigned to a battleship. "Finally for my last assignment in the reserves, almost 40 years later, I got on the battleship New Jersey in 1983."

That took him to Beirut, Lebanon, and some of the last action the 16-inch guns of the "Black Dragon" would see.

Azzolina said the New Jersey will offer the country a unique opportunity.

"We're going to do such a marvelous job of educating the youth not only about the battleship, but about the importance of the armed forces of this country."

After Azzolina spoke, one of the original crew members cast a wreath into the bay in front of the ship as a memorial to those who served, while a spry 81-year-old Dr. Frank C. Blair played taps on a clarinet. At that point, Hugh Dixon of Miami, a World War II veteran who witnessed Friday's activity from a wheelchair, pulled himself up using a pole and stood with his hand across his heart.

Blair, from Catalina, Calif., claims a unique place in the New Jersey's history. Just out of school, he was chosen to set up the ship's dental office. "I was a paid killer," he joked. "We were all paid killers, but I killed our side."

Col. Michael L. Warner, deputy commissioner for New Jersey Veterans Affairs, who spoke on behalf of Gov. Christie Whitman, conducted the second ceremony. He invited the nation to join the Garden State in welcoming the grand old battlewagon.

"On the fifth of November, she will arrive in the Delaware basin and begin her voyage up the Delaware River. New Jersey knows how to welcome its veterans home - and this great veteran will be welcomed home in style by the citizens of New Jersey because she's ours."

Warner joined Capt. Chapple and Todd Busch of Crowley Marine Services, the tow company transporting the New Jersey, to symbolically cast off a line connecting the super dreadnought to the dock.

That happens for real on Sunday about 6 a.m. (9 a.m. EDT).

USS New Jersey Home Page

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