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South Jersey

October 18, 1999

Whitman, officials tour battleship

Chris LaChall, Courier-Post

Gov. Christie Whitman and her husband John tour the USS New Jersey in Panama City on Sunday. Today, the ship will enter the canal locks.


By BOB INGLE
Gannett State Bureau


CANAL ZONE, PANAMA … Gov. Christie Whitman on Sunday praised the Battleship New Jersey as a gallant warrior and paid tribute to the Panama Canal, calling it a true marvel of engineering. She spoke just a few feet away from both. Today, the battleship will enter the first lock of the canal.

"Over the years, the New Jersey distinguished herself as no other," Whitman said. "The most decorated battleship in naval history, she earned 16 Battle Stars and numerous achievement awards in four wars over a span of five decades. Her effectiveness in war helped build a legacy of peace."

The governor toured the ship's deck with Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., and others, posing briefly in front of the "Big J's" huge 16-inch guns, which could fire a shell with the mass of a compact car 23 miles. They created so much smoke when they fired, the ship was also known as the šBlack Dragon.™

The governor said the deck stroll connected her to the ship's past and those who served aboard the vessel.

"As I walked across her sleeping deck and through her quiet passageways just a few minutes ago, I could feel the presence, the living presence, of the thousands of men who, over the years, served on this ship with honor, courage and commitment," she said.

"And now, like a victorious warrior returning from battle," the governor told an audience seated under tents in the blazing heat, "the USS New Jersey prepares to make her last passage through the canal, on her final journey home, in a world blessed with the bounty of a peace she helped secure."

The battleship is being towed to Philadelphia, where it will await a decision from the Navy on where in New Jersey it will be anchored as a floating museum and tribute to people who have served their country.

Whitman noted this will be the grand old battlewagon's 10th trip through the canal, which she praised as a šliving monument to the vision of those who conceived it, the sweat and toil of those who built it, and the dedication of those who have operated it."

The United States will turn over the canal to Panama at the end of the year, an event made possible, Whitman said, by a world with an increased sense of security.

"The achievement of this security would not have been possible without the contribution of the great ship, which now lies peacefully behind me and the achievement of those who served on her." The governor was eloquent. But Lautenberg displayed his quick wit, often poking fun at himself.

"The New Jersey was launched Dec. 7, 1942, and I don't know who looks the worse for wear, but that was the week I enlisted in the Army. We're both stilling going … and I'm going under my own power."

The audience roared with laughter. Then, he turned to the Spanish language translator and quipped, "Do you have to translate or shall we let it go?"

The state's senior senator also joked about the size of the ship in relation to the locks on the canal. There is a clearance of about eight inches on either side of the ship.

"It's a tight fit, but New Jersey is a tight fit anyway, between New York and Philadelphia. We always managed to come out on top."

He recalled the ship motto, "Firepower for Freedom," and recalled, šI saw her firing those `Volkswagens' she used to shoot in Lebanon. It was a frightening thing to just witness, but it was a comforting thing to know that that was our ship and those were our people who were out there defending the free world."

Lautenberg introduced legislation to take the battleship off the Navy's active duty register so that it would be available as a floating museum.

"I know that all of us who helped make this voyage possible are thrilled that the New Jersey will be spending her later years in the state for which she is named."

He praised the New Jerseyans who have worked to bring the ship to its namesake state and predicted hundreds of thousand of tourists will visit the ship and learn about history.

USS New Jersey Home Page



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