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South Jersey

October 19, 1999

Passengers impressed by canal voyage

Courier-Post Staff

Joseph Balzano stretched his neck over the railing of the battleship New Jersey and looked down.

The water level more than 20 feet below him rose slowly and without a sound in the first Panama Canal lock on Monday as the ship silently entered on the Pacific Ocean side.

Like all the temporary passengers aboard the ship for its last trip en route home to its namesake state, Balzano and other members of the South Jersey group hoping to bring the ship to Camden were impressed by the smoothness of the canal transit and thrilled to be aboard for part of a historic event.

"Boy, oh boy. Fantastic. So exciting to be here," said Balzano, vice president of the South Jersey Port Corp. and a member of the New Jersey Battleship Commission.

Balzano is also a board member of the Homeport Alliance, a nonprofit group that is seeking Navy approval to dock the ship at the Camden Waterfront as a floating museum.

He and nine others from South Jersey were lucky enough to be among the 60 people chosen by Gov. Christie Whitman to board the ship in the first two locks of the canal as it started on a three-day trip through one of the man-

made wonders of the world. The ship will continue today to be raised the 85 feet above the level of the Pacific and then be lowered back to sea level into the Caribbean Sea via another set of locks by Wednesday.

State Sen. John Matheussen, R-Gloucester, and Democratic Camden County Freeholder Patricia Jones, co-founders of the alliance, were equally impressed.

"Is this a cool feeling or what? This is extremely smooth. You can see the water bubbling along the stone walls of the canal as it rose ever so slowly, but you don't hear anything or feel anything when the ship is floated higher," Matheussen said as he and most others lined the port side railing of the ship in the first lock and then watched as the gates swung open to accept the ship into the second lock.

He and some others said they heard the ship scrape its hull at the beam … the widest part … on the canal wall only once or twice, creating a few puffs of smoke from friction, but otherwise the ship's silence was broken only by conversation.

Jones said she hoped she could find the words to describe the experience to people who did not board the ship at Balboa for the three-hour trip.

"It's incredible to be here with the veterans who served on her and to see the technology of the canal operation," she said as she marveled while roaming the ship.

John Horan of Cherry Hill, one of eight World War II and Korean War crew members aboard, said the trip felt a little different from when they went through the canal under the ship's own power because there was no engine rumble.

"I wouldn't have missed this for the world," he said, describing it as more than he expected. "It also gave me the chance to meet with some of the old boys and trade war stories," said Horan, a signalman during World War II.

Battleship Commission member Walter Olkowski, also a World War II veteran, said as he left the ship in the second lock, "My heart is finally starting to slow down now." He said the transit was a first-class "professional job" and that the ship was towed more quickly at 4.2 nautical miles than during its first canal trip in 1944.

Donald Norcross of Voorhees, vice president of the

Homeport Alliance and president of the South Jersey Council of the AFL-CIO, said it was an exciting event and marveled at how the mule locomotives on either side of the ship kept her steady. He was impressed by the entire canal operation.

The South Jersey contingent and supporters of the other proposed battleship site, Bayonne, mingled on the ship despite their differences.

Some Homeport supporters like Balzano and Matheussen conversed during the trip with Assemblyman Joseph Azzolina, R-Monmouth, chairman of the Battleship Commission, although he and the majority of commissioners want the ship in Bayonne as a floating museum and memorial. The Navy is currently reviewing the two competing applications.

"It's unbelievable how smooth this passage is. I went through the canal 16 years and one month ago (as a reserve captain on temporary assignment), on our way to Beirut. I feel exhilarated and consider this my greatest accomplishment," Azzolina told some people on the ship.

Most of the New Jersey delegation of about 200 that came to Panama for several days of battleship events watched the ship's canal transit from an observation tower along the canal because of restricted space on the ship.

Thomas Foy of Burlington Township, a lobbyist for bond counsel Blank, Rome, Comisky and McCauley of Cherry Hill, called the passage "stirring" even though he was not able to be aboard. His wife, Jamie, said the experience "gave me goose bumps."

"It makes you proud to be a New Jerseyan and an American," said her husband, a former state Democratic assemblyman.

What captivated multimillionaire Henry Rowan, president of Inductotherm Industries of Westampton and the benefactor who has given Rowan University in Glassboro more than $100 million, was the engineering of the canal operation.

"It's a massive piece of engineering. What fascinates me most is the engineering of a century ago is still applicable and working here today," said Rowan, an electrical engineer. "I have had some unusual experiences in my life and this was one of them. This was great and a beautifully organized event."

It was the second canal trip for Rowan, who flew here on his private Lear jet because he said he thought this would be a part of history and an opportunity of a lifetime.

"The first time, my mother put me on a banana boat when I was in the eighth grade, on a trip from New York to Peru. But I really don't remember much about it except I had a lot of fun."

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