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Thursday, August 11, 2005Past Issues - S | M | T | W | T | F | S
South Jersey

October 17, 1999

Sight of battleship awes South Jersey residents


Courier-Post staff

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 ship.

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," Doyle said.

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 said.

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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