From the day it was launched in 1942, the 887-foot USS New Jersey awed landlubbers and sailors alike.
Almost the length of three football fields, the Big J and its sister ships, the Iowa, Wisconsin and Missouri, were the biggest and fastest battleships the United States ever built.
Construction of the New Jersey began in September 1940, at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, and was scheduled to be finished by the spring of 1944. But the attack on Pearl Harbor sped up work, and the ship was finished in 27 months.
At the launching on Dec. 7, 1942, the one-year anniversary of Pearl Harbor, entertainer Kate Smith belted out God Bless America to an estimated 20,000 onlookers. Carolyn Edison, wife of then-
New Jersey Gov. Charles Edison, christened the ship by breaking a champagne bottle on her bow.
The ship would play a front-line role in virtually every major conflict through 1991, logging hundreds of thousands of sea miles a record of longevity unmatched in modern naval history. Remarkably, only one sailor was killed in action on the ship, during the Korean War, and the New Jersey never received significant damage.
Aided by an armor of steel plate nearly 18 inches thick in places, the New Jersey achieved the longest and most enviable service record of any U.S. battleship: 19 campaign stars and other citations.
Reaching the war in the Pacific Ocean in 1944 after passing through the Panama Canal, the New Jersey helped protect aircraft carriers in battle groups and bombarded islands held by the Japanese.
Leaving Tokyo Bay in 1946, the ship was overhauled and then mothballed in Bayonne, Hudson County, across the harbor from New York City. It was decommissioned on June 30, 1948.
Just two years after being deactivated, the New Jersey was again called to duty and recommissioned on Nov. 21, 1950. The ship steamed off to the Pacific for the first of two tours of duty in the war between communist forces in the North and the Republic of Korea.
The battleship began bombarding Korea in an attack on Wonsan Harbor that began May 20, 1951. It was during that siege the ship suffered its first and only combat death. A North Korean shore gun battery hit the No. 1 turret, and a near miss on the port side exploded on the stern, killing Seaman Robert Osterwind of Detroit.
Having sailed 49,000 miles on this first deployment, the New Jersey left for home in November 1951, for a six-month overhaul. It returned to serve again off Korea from April 1953, until the signing of the armistice on July 27, 1953.
Ten years would pass before it sailed again. A civil war in Vietnam had erupted. The New Jersey was needed.
Before heading to the Pacific in 1968, the ship returned to the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, where it received improved electronics, weapons and, for the first time, air conditioning. A helicopter landing pad was added on the stern.
The New Jersey played a limited role during Vietnam, at a time when it was the only battleship at sea. Arriving on Sept. 29, 1968, at Danang, the ship began firing its guns the next day, damaging targets near the Demilitarized Zone as it sought to protect U.S. servicemen and intimidate the enemy.
After firing its guns for the last time on March 31, 1969, the ship was sent home. It was decommissioned at Bremerton, Wash., on Dec. 17, 1969.
Instead of dooming the battleship, new missile technology saved its life. Looking to resurrect World War II-vintage warships, the Reagan administration proposed modernizing the Iowa-class battleships. The USS New Jersey's new arsenal would include 32 long-range Tomahawk cruise missiles and 16 anti-ship Harpoon missiles.
Reagan spoke at the recommissioning at Long Beach Naval Shipyard in California on Dec. 28, 1982.
"She's gray. She's had her face lifted, but she's still in the prime of life the gallant lady New Jersey. . . . God bless and Godspeed," he said.
In September 1983, the ship was ordered to the Mediterranean. U.S. Marines had gone to Lebanon as part of a multinational peacekeeping force in support of Lebanese forces during Middle East unrest. Syrians were in mountain positions firing on Marines despite a cease-fire.
A crewman, Michael Gorchinski of Lemon Grove, Calif., died in that bombing. He had been dispatched from the ship to the Marine base to assist in the repair of radar equipment.
With the Navy continuing to focus on aircraft carriers and air power, the role of battleships grew increasingly limited. The New Jersey's last decommissioning came Sept. 9, 1991.
On Jan. 4, 1999, with the ship languishing in mothballs in Bremerton, Congress removed the ship from the naval register and make it available as a floating museum.
The New Jersey Battleship Commission wanted the ship to be berthed in Bayonne, several miles south of the Statue of Liberty. But the Home Port Alliance, a coalition of political, government, business and labor leaders from South Jersey, campaigned to win the ship for Camden.
To lead the alliance, two Navy men were brought on board as volunteers. Retired Rear Adm. Thomas Seigenthaler of Haddonfield was named executive director, and retired Navy Capt. David McGuigan, also of Haddonfield, became alliance president.
McGuigan managed the application process, spending hundreds of hours with other volunteers putting together a 1,700-page application that would wow the Navy.
With a decision from the Navy pending, the ship had to be towed from Bremerton through the Panama Canal before the United States relinquished control of the canal. A farewell ceremony was held Sept. 11, 1999, a day before its departure.
"This ceremony marks the end of the New Jersey's great military career, and acknowledges the beginning of an even greater chapter as a memorial to what we've done as a nation and what we need to do as a nation," Capt. Roy Chapple, chief of staff of the Navy's Pacific Northwest Command, said in remarks that carry extra meaning today.
New Jersey's governor at the time, Christie Whitman, led a delegation of about 300 from New Jersey who welcomed the ship and witnessed the historic canal crossing.
Nov. 11 Veterans Day was chosen for the final leg up the Delaware River to the former Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. More than 25,000 spectators welcomed the ship home.
Work on transforming the ship into a museum could not begin, however, until the ship was moved across the Delaware River to New Jersey. On July 27, 2000, the ship was towed three miles up river to the first of two temporary berths in Camden.
The ship's final voyage -- a 1.5-mile trip up river to a new pier on the Camden Waterfront came last Sunday.
The journey was to have taken place with great fanfare. But those plans were discarded after the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on America, which left nearly 7,000 people dead and missing.
With the Coast Guard requiring a low-key event for security reasons, the ship was towed at sunrise, with only middle-of-the-night notice to the public. Only a small number of people managed to get out to watch the historic move. Those who did found comfort in the ship.
"It's a symbol of the fact that our country is still the greatest country in the world,'' said Al Giordano of Sicklerville, a runner in a race across the Benjamin Franklin Bridge Sunday. "And the morons who pulled that stuff . . . are going to learn the hard way we still have battleships and we still have aircraft carriers."
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