New Jersey's past and future honored
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
"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
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).
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