thrilled to be on `Big J'
ABOARD THE USS NEW JERSEY
Cruising the Panama Canal is not a novelty for William Hughes.
As former U.S. Ambassador to Panama, the South Jersey resident
made at least a dozen transits of the canal on cruise and cargo
However, Monday's trip was like no other for Hughes. He and
his wife Nancy were aboard the battleship New Jersey, making
its final trip through the canal.
"I have made a lot of transits, but this is unquestionably
the most exciting for me or anyone," said Hughes, 67, of
"This is the USS New Jersey
the most decorated
battleship in the U.S. Navy. That makes a lot of difference."
Hughes served as U.S. ambassador to Panama from 1995 to 1998,
after a 22-
year career as a Democratic congressman. He currently is a
professor of public policy at Stockton State College in Pomona
and at Rutgers University.
Before he was confirmed as ambassador, Hughes recalled, he
received a call from Assemblyman Joseph Azzolina, R-Monmouth.
Azzolina, chairman of the New Jersey Battleship Commission, told
Hughes the commission would want to bring the ship through the
canal so it could return to New Jersey as a floating museum.
This, however, was several years before the Navy decided to
donate the ship.
Hughes said he mentioned the issue of the ship while attending
his first meeting of the Panama Canal Commission as ambassador.
Hughes said the commission members raised their eyebrows "and
I could see a lot of pained expressions on their faces because
of the challenges that would present."
The battleship is not moving under its own power, but is being
towed to a temporary home at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard.
The Navy will decide on its ultimate destination
Camden or Bayonne.
Eventually, the U.S. government won approval for the ship's
transit through the canal.
"I wanted it to come back during my watch as ambassador,
but the important thing is that it's happened," Hughes said.
He and his wife said it feels great to be back in Panama.
The couple said they especially missed the people, whom they
described as friendly and loving the United States.
Panama, said Hughes, "is more Americanized than any other
Latin country. They even use U.S. currency."
Hughes noted that he served in Panama during a challenging
time, when U.S. officials were negotiating the transfer of the
canal and American military facilities to the Panamanians.
While some Panamanians do not want the United States to leave
when it turns the canal over to them Jan. 1, Hughes said he believes
the United States made the right decision.
"There's no question it makes abundant sense. The canal
has become a target of terrorism and U.S. ownership created unrest."
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