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South Jersey

September 13, 1999

Battleship starts journey home

Chris LaChall, Courier-Post

The USS New Jersey clears the Rich Passage outside Bremerton, Wash., Sunday. The passage is the second most narrow area the ship has to clear on its route to the East Coast.

Gannett State Bureau

BREMERTON, Wash. … On the day the battleship New Jersey began its final voyage, even nature showed respect.

In the predawn hours Sunday, the mist that perpetually shrouds this area was cooperatively absent.

Rocking silently between two other Navy heroes, the aircraft carriers Ranger and Midway, the "Big J" looked more like a ghost ship than the nation's most decorated Navy vessel. The few workers aboard to help get the tow started were lost in the shadows on the hulking ship's bow.

The historic journey began at 6:45 a.m. Towed by the tug Sea Victory with an assist by three other Crowley Marine Services tugs, the colossal battleship was pulled away from the mothball fleet at Puget Sound Naval Shipyard, its home since it was decommissioned in 1991. The ship was oddly quiet … its 212,000-horsepower engines stilled, its four giant propellers locked in place.

Battened down and sealed up, the "Big J" glided smoothly into position to start what eventually will be a new career in its namesake state as a floating museum and memorial to those who served their country.

But first a sentimental journey, one last trek across the seas, down the West Coast, through the Panama Canal and up the Eastern seaboard to Philadelphia.

There, on Dec. 7, 1942, the New Jersey's distinguished service began with a bottle of champagne across the bow and a slide down skids slicked with 100,000 pounds of grease. The 45,000-ton behemoth hit the Delaware River with such force that onlookers on the Camden side were drenched.

It never stopped making waves. From World War II and Korea to Vietnam, Beirut and El Salvador, the "Big J" answered America's call. Its 16-inch gun batteries could fire shells with the mass of compact cars over such long distances the enemy was hard put to retaliate. Of the thousands who served aboard the New Jersey, one sailor died in combat. A grateful nation honored the ship's service with 16 battle stars and 15 medals and awards, a record likely to stand.

The New Jersey left quietly Sunday but it did not leave unnoticed or alone.

The morning sun, peaking over the Cascade Range mountains, illuminated a small flotilla of pleasure craft and a U.S. Coast Guard patrol craft. When the New Jersey passed the Washington State ferry terminal here, a long blast of a ferry's horn called "goodbye" to an honored neighbor.

Along the way through Sinclair Inlet, people gathered on wharves and beaches to wave and take photographs, probably knowing there won't be anything like this coming through here again. Overhead, helicopters carrying reporters and photographers buzzed around the ship and tugs like bees.

Even under tow, the New Jersey looked graceful and majestic.

"It's a fist in a velvet glove," observed Capt. Bart Bartell, 74, a World War II sailor who watched through a submarine's periscope in 1945 as Japanese leaders surrendered on the Jersey's sister ship, the Missouri.

Bartell gives guided tours of the mothball fleet, and the New Jersey is his favorite ship. But he is happy the "Big J" is going home.

"They'll fix it up," he said. "Here, the old gal is going to waste."

The toughest part of the journey is the Panama Canal, where there is just eight inches of space on either side of the ship. The second-tightest spot was barely 10 miles from the start of the trip. Rich Passage is tricky for even the most skilled mariners because it has a rocky bottom and is only 65 feet deep at high tide. But Sea Victory Capt. Kaare Ogaard, 58, made it look like child's play.

As two huge seals watched curiously from their perch on a buoy, Ogaard brought the 888-foot long vessel through safely, then made a left turn at Glover Point to head through Admiralty Inlet to the Strait of Juan de Fuca and out to the Pacific.

The operation halted just long enough to get the workers off the New Jersey, then resumed without a soul aboard and the Sea Victory attached by a 2 3/4-inch steel cable. As the other tugs fell back, one sprayed colored water from its fire-fighting equipment as a final salute and tribute.

Where the ship will find its permanent home is still unclear. Bayonne and Camden are fighting for the honor. The U.S. Navy Ship Donation Program Office is considering their applications, and is expected to make a decision in January. For Capt. David McGuigan of Haddonfield, a retired Navy officer, Sunday's events held special meaning.

McGuigan is president of the Home Port Alliance, which is working to bring the New Jersey to the Camden Waterfront. "We're very happy a major milestone has been met today and that the ship is coming home," McGuigan said. "We will have a Home Port group to meet the ship in Panama, and we are busy planning a major welcome in Philadelphia and fine-tuning our planned site on the Camden Waterfront."

Staff writer Carol Comegno and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

USS New Jersey Home Page

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