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South Jersey

October 10, 1999

Battleship nears Panama Canal for a final time

Gannett State Bureau

Next week, the USS New Jersey will, for the final time, leave the Pacific Ocean...stage to some of its greatest victories.

It was to the Pacific that the New Jersey, winner of 16 battle stars, returned again and again in its storied career spanning five decades. In the Pacific Theater during World War II, the New Jersey helped defeat the Imperial Japanese fleet. In Korea and Vietnam, the ship cruised the Pacific, the South China Sea and the Sea of Japan to support American troops fighting inland.

In 1982, the New Jersey patrolled the Central American coast before the Navy dispatched "The Big J" to aid Marines in Lebanon.

A week from Monday the ship will be eased into the first of the Panama Canal's six locks. Each of the half-dozen times the New Jersey made the passage before, it was en route to a new assignment...or to await the next call to duty. But this will be the last canal crossing for "The Black Dragon" as it makes its way to its permanent home in its namesake state and a new career as a floating museum and memorial to those who served their country.

This time, when the New Jersey leaves the stage there will be no curtain call.

"It marks the end of the road," said naval historian Paul Stillwell, author of the definitive history of the New Jersey. "She's coming home at long last to the state for which she was named."

The canal is just past the halfway point in the ship's 5,800-mile journey home. So far, everything has gone according to plan, said Kaare Ogaard, captain of the tug Sea Victory, which is towing the mothballed battleship.

"We are actually ahead of schedule, so we are slowing down to meet the arrival date," Ogaard said in a telephone interview from a point off the coast of Mexico. "There have been no problems at all. The weather has been good, everything has gone well."

The ship is scheduled to reach Balboa, Panama...just outside the first set of canal locks...on Oct. 16, and arrive in Philadelphia around Nov. 5, where it will be moored at the Philadelphia Navy Yard temporarily. In the following months, the Navy will decide the ship's final home...either Bayonne or Camden.

Getting the massive vessel through the canal will be the trickiest part of the journey, Ogaard said.

"I think it's the sheer size of the ship that can cause problems. It's quite a handful to get through six locks and tow across a narrow lake," he said.

Once it reaches Balboa, the New Jersey will be docked until Oct. 18, when it enters the Miraflores Locks to begin its 50-mile passage across the Continental Divide to the Atlantic Ocean. The arrival of a ship such as the New Jersey once would have been quite an event in the canal zone, said Paul Louis Elia Jr., of Manchester Township, who grew up in Panama in the 1950s.

"Anything out of the daily routine was an occurrence," said Elia, whose father, uncle and grandfather were among the thousands of Americans who lived and worked in the canal zone over the years. "When you live in a place like the Panama Canal, the entire community is geared to make everything run and be efficient. Anything differing from that routine is a big deal."

When Elia lived there and a special ship such as the New Jersey would come through, "they would have practically made a major holiday out of the thing. People would have been skipping school to see it," he said. "Everyone and their grandmother would have been down there to get a look at it."

But now, with the United States set to hand over the canal to Panama in December, Elia said he hopes the New Jersey gets the reception it deserves. "I don't know what the Panamanian response will be because many of the Americans are now gone," he said.

Coaxing a 45,000-ton ship through six locks, as well as the more than 27 miles of inland lakes and canals, will be especially difficult because the ship will not be under its own power, a "dead ship" in nautical terms.

At first, Panama Canal officials were unsure whether they would allow the ship to pass through, said Assemblyman Joseph Azzolina, R-Monmouth, who is chairman of the New Jersey Battleship Commission.

"Their main concern is damaging the canal," he said. "But they figured out a way to do it, so they let us take her through."

The New Jersey was designed specifically with the canal in mind. Each lock is 110 feet wide and 1,000 feet long. That leaves less than 100 feet clearance fore and aft, and about 7 inches clearance to port and starboard.

The process to get a ship through is the same today as it was in 1914, when the canal opened. Tugs will bring the ship to the gates, where the New Jersey will be attached to specially designed tractors that run on tracks along either side of the lock. The tractors keep the ship centered and slowly pull it through.

The ride, however, is never smooth. Frank Blair was a lieutenant aboard the New Jersey when it made its first canal crossing in 1943 on the way to the Pacific Theater.

"If it was at a slight angle, say just a little to the left, the port bow side of the ship would scrape and so would the starboard stern," he said. The captain then ordered sailors to coat the hull with a thick layer of grease to minimize the damage.

"And even with that, there were big sparks flying up. It was quite an event," he said.

In 1982, the last time the ship went through, Capt. William M. Fogarty hung thick ropes along the hull to serve as bumpers. The friction was so severe that several of the lines caught fire and had to be doused by crew members.

Once out of the two-step Miraflores Locks, the ship will be towed a short distance to the last of the three Pacific Ocean-side locks. Once through there, the New Jersey will be some 85 feet above sea level when it exits into the Gaillardo Cut, the narrowest part of the canal, just 300 feet wide in some parts.

When construction began in the late 1800s, this section was the most significant engineering hurdle to overcome. Originally, this region was more than 330 feet above sea level.

The French, who first attempted to build the canal, planned to construct a tunnel through this section.

After their efforts failed, American engineers took over and lowered the cut to a level reachable by locks...a remarkable achievement. In all, more than 260 million cubic yards of dirt and rock were removed from the canal route, much of it from the Gaillardo Cut.

The ship will be towed by the Sea Victory and at least two other canal tugs through the cut and into Gatun Lake, a 26-mile-long inland waterway that crosses the Continental Divide.

The battleship will overnight near the three-step Gatun Locks before emerging into the Atlantic. In all, the journey across the canal will take two days, Ogaard said.

Once out of the canal, the remainder of the trip should be easy, he said. "The rest of it is just a long boat ride."

USS New Jersey Home Page

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