J' enters Panama Canal
The USS New Jersey clears
the Bridge of the Americas, entrance to the Panama Canal, on
Saturday. It arrived on schedule despite bad weather Friday.
Gannett State Bureau
PANAMA CITY, Panama - The historic
final voyage of the battleship New Jersey was smooth sailing
until the night before it was to enter the Panama Canal.
The weather suddenly turned - as did the famed battleship,
which acted as if it wanted to break free and go with the wind.
"We thought we would take it easy and have a nice night
of it, but when the winds rose we forgot about that. They were
near gale-force with rain," said Capt. Kaare Ogaard, master
of the tug Sea Victory, which is towing the New Jersey from Bremerton,
Wash., to Philadelphia.
There the New Jersey will await the Navy's decision on a final
berthing place in its new role as a floating museum and memorial
to those who served their country.
At first, the captain thought he could merely re-anchor the
ship. Then he realized the 887-foot, 45,000-ton behemoth was
quickly closing in on the much smaller tug.
To save the tug and its valuable tow, the captain abandoned
the re-anchor plan, ordering the tug's 7,200-horsepower engines
throttled up. He spent the night jogging about in Panama Bay,
holding the ship into the wind.
That worked, but the next day, Saturday, another problem forced
the tug's air conditioning off.
Before he left Washington, the captain said he thought the
Panama Canal would be the most stressful part of the 5,800-mile
journey because of all the rigging that had to be done amid the
heat and humidity of the tropics.
High winds and humidity notwithstanding, the crew kept to
schedule and at 9:33 a.m. Panama time, the grand old battleship
went under the Bridge of the Americas for the final time. The
bridge marks the beginning of the canal. Locals call the area
La Boca - Spanish for "the mouth."
When the ship arrived at piers 14 and 15 about 10 a.m., even
dockworkers accustomed to seeing much bigger ships stopped what
they were doing to gawk in wonder at the Navy's most decorated
Also on hand to welcome the "Big J" were about 25
New Jerseyans, a fraction of the Garden State residents in Central
America last week. A series of receptions with Gov. Christie
Whitman and other officials will mark the ship's historic canal
passage and the passing of the canal's control in December from
American to Panamanian hands.
"As a Vietnam vet, I benefited from her firepower,"
said Ira Drucks, 54, of Livingston, Essex County, who came here
with a group of 60. "But I understand better her impact
having seen her up close."
"It was breathtaking," said Carol Beske of Princeton,
a Delaware River Port Authority commissioner. "It was so
exciting to see her. She is so huge."
Naval reservist Rear Adm. Tim Beard of Westfield, Union County,
summed up his feeling upon seeing the ship pulled to the pier
in one word: "Magnificent!"
Assemblyman Joseph Azzolina, R-Monmouth, who invested 30 years
in trying to get the grand old battlewagon to its namesake state
as a museum, was pleasantly surprised at how good the "Black
"I'm amazed at the condition of the ship from the bow
forward. I think it looks great. I hope when it gets to Philadelphia
they will scrape off the rust and touch up the paint. But I feel
really proud," said Azzolina, smiling broadly.
The last time Azzolina was at this dock was in 1982, when
he rode the New Jersey through the canal en route to Beirut,
Lebanon, where the famed 16-inch guns gave fire support to U.S.
Marines. Azzolina, a retired Navy man, served as a special assistant
to the ship's skipper.
"I have a great sense of accomplishment and pride,"
said New Jersey Veterans Affairs Administrator Michael Warner.
"It brings to culmination this part of the trip. The next
great step is going to be Nov. 7, when we bring it up the Delaware."
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