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South Jersey

October 19, 1999

Battleship halfway through Canal

Chris LaChall, Courier-Post

The USS New Jersey is pulled by electric locomotives through the Miraflores locks at the Panama Canal Monday. It will take two more days for the battleship to complete the journey through the waterway. The New Jersey is expected to arrive in Philadelphia on Nov. 7.

Gannett State Bureau

ABOARD THE USS NEW JERSEY - The engines are idle and the massive guns silent, but this grand old battleship - making its 10th and last trip through the Panama Canal Monday - still has the power to bring a crowd to its feet.

Weathered decks and peeling gray paint were largely unnoticed as three tugs eased the behemoth out of the Port of Balboa into the canal en route to the first chamber of the Miraflores locks, a marvel of engineering that raised the ship 28 feet in a mere eight minutes as 26 million gallons of fresh water rushed in.

"It's awesome in a lot of ways," said Gov. Christie Whitman, who led a delegation of civilian and military officials, former sailors on the ship and citizens who worked to bring the "Big J" to its namesake state. The Navy will decide whether it will be berthed in Camden or Bayonne as a floating museum and memorial to those who served their country.

Whitman was clearly caught up in the moment, handing out "New Jersey and You" buttons to those aboard and to dock workers, and photographing the scenery.

"To be standing on her deck when she moves, although it's not under her own power, is something that few people who weren't serving on her get to experience. Then, of course, to see her going through these locks is very exciting," the governor said.

It was also a challenge for the canal workers, who had been readying themselves for this day for months. There is about eight inches of clearance on either side of the concrete locks and the ship. One canal pilot scheduled for vacation said he would work for nothing for the honor and challenge of getting the New Jersey through.

Capt. Arcelio Hartley, senior canal port captain, said bigger ships pass through the locks, but the New Jersey is the largest to go through without its engines running - a "dead ship" in nautical terms.

When the "Big J" reached the locks, men in rowboats ferried lines from the ship to 10 electric locomotives, five on each side. Their job was to keep the ship centered. A tug boat in front of the ship had the task of slowing the New Jersey so it didn't ram the massive 350-ton doors that close in front and behind a ship before the lock is flooded.

The operation was so quick and quiet that few realized how far the ship had risen. When the ship entered the chamber, the deck was even with the locomotives, called "mules." Minutes later, the mules were almost three stories below.

While the locks flooded, people from different generations and backgrounds seized the moment to share New Jersey stories.

One was Joseph L. Malpica, formerly of East Bergen, who works in the U.S. Embassy in Panama. His father-in-law, George Thau, a career sailor and Camden native, was sent a state flag in 1968 by Ed Lombardo of Woodbury, while Thau was serving on the famed battleship off Vietnam. Later, the flag accompanied Thau to Antarctica, Guam and other assignments.

When Malpica married Thau's daughter, Thau gave the flag to Malpica, then a young naval officer, in hopes the banner would continue to travel around the world. Ironically, Thau, who was ready to retire, was sent to the Gulf War, but the son-in-law stayed in the states.

Whitman autographed the flag and Malpica promised to bring it aboard the New Jersey again when the ship is a museum.

Walking the decks brought back fond memories for Dick Esser, president of the USS New Jersey Battleship Association and one of seven original crew members aboard. Even though the Lorraine, Ohio, resident served on the "Black Dragon" for two years, Monday was the first time he had been on the deck, where observers stood for this canal passage.

"All us machinist's mates were on the stern," he said. "They didn't want us to come up here because we had greasy shoes. They wanted us to stay aft."

Bob Ross of Ringoes, Hunterdon County, was aboard the New Jersey for the first canal passage during World War II. He manned anti-aircraft guns, which have since been removed. Being aboard for this final voyage reminded him of his first time he saw the ship.

"My eyes almost popped out of my head," he recalled. "Look at that thing. It's big. Unbelievable."

Whitman and the others left the ship after it moved through the lock's first chamber. The New Jersey proceeded through the second chamber into Miraflores Lake. The Pedro Miguel locks are next, and then it will be pulled by the tug Sea Victory, which has towed it from Bremerton, Wash., across Gatun Lake - a source of fresh water for the locks and 85-feet above sea level. After that, it proceeds through the three-step Gatun locks before emerging into the Caribbean, back at sea level. The journey will take two more days.

The Sea Victory will then tow the "Big J" up the Eastern Seaboard to the Delaware River for a scheduled Nov. 7 arrival in Philadelphia, ending the 5,800-mile final voyage where it was launched Dec. 7, 1942. USS New Jersey Home Page

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