Battleship embarks on a new life
By CAROL COMEGNO
The USS New Jersey began its life by entering the Delaware River on Dec. 7, 1942, with a warning from Navy Undersecretary James Vincent Forrestal: A year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the nation still faced a long world war.
"Hope rises fast on the wings of victory," he said, "but I see no sign of an early conclusion and it seems to me to be extremely dangerous to indulge ourselves in such speculation."
Now, 59 years later, the nation's most decorated battleship is embarking on a new life as a museum while the nation is again grieving over another horrific sneak attack and is preparing for another war, this one on terrorism.
On Sept. 11, suicide terrorists from abroad flew U.S. passenger jets into the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, leaving more than 6,800 dead or missing. Another hijacked plane failed to hit a target; instead, it crashed in southwestern Pennsylvania, killing 44.
"We have been working overtime to get (the USS New Jersey) open to the public as soon as possible after more than a three-year effort to bring the ship back to the Delaware River where it was built and where it belongs," said Patricia Jones, co-chair of the Home Port Alliance, the nonprofit South Jersey group that was awarded the ship by the Navy. "The timing is unfortunate, however, for big happy celebrations."
Already, the retired New Jersey has been affected by the nation's heightened security measures. The Coast Guard delayed moving the ship because of concerns about port security and then moved it secretly at dawn Sunday without ceremony. Hundreds of volunteers who helped repair the ship as well as the officials and alliance trustees who helped bring it back to New Jersey were not allowed on board NOTE:barred from going aboard. Only line handlers and the ship's current crewmen were on board for its final but short trip 1" miles from South Camden to the downtown Waterfront.
How the national dilemma will affect the future of the battleship museum and its hoped-for economic impact on a poor city also is uncertain.
Will it hurt tourism and lower attendance, or will it boost the city because of its patriotic appeal? Millions of people live in the tri-state region alone, but opinions on early ship attendance and its ultimate impact vary.
Merchant Marine veteran John Huber, 73, of Deptford, one of 55 who who received a state medal on the ship this week, encourages people to visit.
"I just stood there a few minutes and gazed at it," he said. "It's absolutely awesome and you have to see it for yourself to believe it."
AVI STEINHARDT/Courier-PostA view of the USS New Jersey as seen from the DRPA building in camden. At the forefront are the Tweeter Center and the marina.
State Sen. John Matheussen, R-Gloucester, the other alliance co-chair, is optimistic about the ship's prospects.
"The ship is displayed at the best possible vantage. It can be seen from the Benjamin Franklin Bridge into Philadelphia and from both waterfronts. It's a great place for a memorial to veterans who have fought for freedom and heritage," he said.
Alliance vice president Donald Norcross said the ship is an even more fitting memorial in light of the Sept. 11 terror attacks.
"We urge people to come to the Camden Waterfront to witness its rebirth," he said.
Frank Fulbrook, another alliance trustee and president of an economic development agency known as the Camden Empowerment Zone Corp., said he expects the ship will be a riverfront catalyst.
The battleship has already created several dozen jobs, including about 14 for Camden residents.
Fulbrook said the hope is that it also will bring hundreds of others by attracting new business ventures like a hotel conference center to supplement the New Jersey State Aquarium and the Tweeter entertainment complex, the Children's Garden, the Riversharks baseball team and its new stadium. The ship is in a federally designated zone eligible for economic enhancements.
"I think the national situation may reduce crowds because some people don't feel in a celebratory mood, but it's hard to say," said ship program director Jack Shaw.
A new volunteer who is trying to become a tour guide says she had an interest in the ship but did not decide to become a tour guide until after Sept. 11.
"I was feeling a little more patriotic and I have followed the saga of the ship, which was built in Philly in my own back yard, and I hope other people will feel the same way and come to see it," said Cheryl Kaplan, a lawyer from Lafayette Hill, Pa., who practices in Burlington City.
Alliance officials have been pushing to open the ship even though parts of the pier and ship are unfinished. Part of the motive of opening now is to begin collecting revenue to help pay operating costs for a project that already has cost about $22 million.
Mostly state grants and other public money have financed the project $11 million for a new T-shaped pier, $7 million for ship restoration and $4 million for the visitor center, professional contracts, staff salaries and other admionsitrative costs.
Robert Walters of Cinnaminson, a Korean War-era sailor on the New Jersey, said he thinks the spruced-up ship looks even better than when it was in service.
"It's just too bad we could not get the last ride on her," said Walters, who started as a volunteer and has become a part-time employee helping to collect and log ship and Navy artifacts.
John Horan of Cherry Hill, a World War II signalman on the ship's first crew, is delighted the ship will finally be open.
"The volunteers did a great job and everyone seems to be impressed with it," he said.