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South Jersey

October 17, 1999

'Big J' enters Panama Canal

CHRIS LaCHALL/Courier-Post

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 vessel.

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 Dragon" looked.

"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."

USS New Jersey Home Page

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