of battleship awes South Jersey residents
BALBOA, Panama - The battleship
New Jersey, which arrived Saturday at the Panama Canal entrance
here, has been in the hands of a retired Army colonel from Burlington
County since before it left on its 5,800-mile journey from the
state of Washington.
And another county resident is handling public relations for
all of the trip events such as today's scheduled tour of the
ship by more than 200 New Jerseyans who came to witness the ship's
final historic crossing of the canal.
Retired Army Col. Michael Warner of Southampton, Veterans
Affairs administrator for New Jersey, and Liz Thomas of Thomas
Boyd Associates in Moorestown were dockside in Balboa when the
New Jersey was eased into a pier by several tugs.
"It took my breath away," said Thomas, who was seeing
the ship for the first time. "I've been working on this
for so many months, and I've only seen her in photos. So to finally
see her in person and safely in Panama is a thrill."
Warner, who has been coordinating the ship's towing in his
state post, said as he gazed at the ship that this has been a
"totally different experience" for him.
"When I was in the Army, no one would have ever believed
I would be towing a battleship. I never even owned a boat in
my life. It has really been interesting, and I've had to learn
a lot about ships very quickly," said Warner, commander
of the Army training post at Fort Dix from 1992 until he retired
in 1994 to take the state job.
What has amazed Warner has been the state and worldwide interest
in not only the future home of the ship, but in its historic
voyage from Bremerton, Wash,. to Philadelphia, where it will
arrive next month and stay pending a Navy decision by January
on its future home.
"I am absolutely flabbergasted by the amount of interest
- even when it left Bremerton - and the number of people going
down to Panama just for this," he said.
Warner said a battleship Internet site set up by the state
has had more than 42,000 hits since it went on the World Wide
Web a month ago.
People have come from as far away as California, Texas and
Ohio to watch the ship's canal passage.
Although the Navy still owns the New Jersey, it gave the state
Military Affairs Department total responsibility for the ship
during its voyage, including its three-day transit of the canal
that is to begin Monday.
Warner said he was relieved when the ship arrived here after
a smooth journey from Bremerton, because it now has completed
the longest leg of its journey.
Warner and Thomas were in a group of 25 New Jerseyans who
were here to welcome the gray war hero as she came into port
with the sun poking through storm clouds on a humid, 92-degree
day. The New Jersey's hull paint was marred only by a few streaks
of rust. A backdrop of mountains across the harbor framed the
Panamanian canal workers, in awe, called the ship "bonita"
and "grande," which mean beautiful and large in Spanish.
William J. Doyle, 68, of Edgewater Park, said he was excited
to see the ship for the first time.
"I wanted to be here for what is a historic moment,"
Warner and Thomas met Saturday alongside the ship with Arcelio
NOTE:cq Hartley, Panamanian captain and acting manager for transit
operations at the canal to discuss the pending trip through the
locks. Hartley said the transit will take three days because
the ship will move only during daylight. He called it an exciting
event that presents a challenge to the Canal Commission because
of the battleship's size.
It was Hartley's department that hired Crowley Marine Services
of Washington to tow the battleship - the most decorated ship
in the U.S. Navy with 16 battle ribbons in several wars - back
to its namesake state. The state also is paying for the towing,
which is expected to cost less than the $2.2 million budgeted.
While the ship makes its last canal trip, the Navy is in the
midst of reviewing two competing applications seeking the ship
for a floating memorial and museum. The Homeport Alliance of
South Jersey proposes to put the ship in the Delaware River at
Camden, near Philadelphia, where it was built. The New Jersey
Battleship Commission wants it in Bayonne, where it was stored
after World War II and the Korean War.
Meanwhile, the historical significance of the canal crossing
goes beyond New Jersey and the ship, Warner said.
"It is a U.S. story, because it is the last significant
Navy vessel to go through the canal while it is still under U.S.
control," he said.
The South Jersey group in Panama includes veterans, politicians,
businessmen and members of nonprofit groups who came mostly at
their own expense and are staying at the state's headquarters
at the Marriott Panama City.
They were to include state Sen. John Matheussen, R-Gloucester;
Joseph Balzano, executive director of the South Jersey Port Corp.;
Robert Yancey of Florence, commander of the state chapter of
the Disabled Veterans of America; former Democratic Assemblyman
and Cherry Hill lawyer Thomas Foy; Camden County Freeholder Pat
Jones, and Donald Norcross, president of the AFL-CIO, Southern
New Jersey Labor Council.
Camden Mayor Milton Milan was on the guest list, but canceled.
Hurricane Irene prevented some of the state residents from
arriving, because U.S. flights out of Miami were canceled.
"There has been phenomenal interest in the ship,"
said Thomas, 40, co-owner of the Thomas Boyd Associates public
relations firm, who was busy in Panama this weekend finalizing
events and answering media questions.
"So far, everything has gone like clockwork," she
More planning is taking place for a welcome event when the
ship comes up the Delaware River - now projected for Nov. 7.
"That date is really being set by the towing company.
It could change depending on weather or any problems, but that
is the date they are now telling me," Warner said.
Everyone who came from New Jersey will be allowed on the deck
of the ship today for a tour conducted by the Navy, Warner said.
Some will be able to ride partway through the first lock with
Gov. Christie Whitman Monday.
"They will be able to walk through and touch the ship
and get a sense of the history," Warner said.
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