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South Jersey

October 20, 1999
USS New Jersey poised to enter Caribbean today

CHRIS LaCHALL/Courier-Post

Bernie Moran and his son, Chip, both residents of Haddon Township, watch the USS New Jersey as it travels through the Panama Canal on Tuesday.

Courier-Post staff

PANAMA CANAL - The Battleship USS New Jersey inched its way, under tow, through the canal Tuesday, the second day of a three-day journey, and was to reach the Caribbean side today.

While most of the New Jersey delegation that came to see the World War II-era ship enter the canal on Monday left Panama City on Tuesday, a group from South Jersey stayed to catch a final glimpse of the ship and to tour Panama.

Tuesday morning, they spotted the ship - the most decorated vessel in Navy history - in Mira Flores Lake near the second of three sets of locks in the canal. At the first sight of the ship, the group cheered and the tour bus stopped for picture-taking along the lake's edge.

"Take it to Camden! And don't run into the mud in that narrow channel!" Bernie Moran, 59, of Haddon Township, yelled to the canal tug pulling the "Big J" as he pointed northward, in the direction of New Jersey.

Moran, a retired Philadelphia Naval Shipyard worker who once prepared pumps and other machinery used on ships like this one, embraced his son, Chip, 38, as they said their last goodbye until the ship arrives in the Delaware River in early November.

"We want to keep alive the history of the shipbuilding industry in South Jersey and Philadelphia by bringing the battleship back to where she was built in the 1940s and overhauled in 1968," said Moran. He supports a Camden site for a naval museum and memorial instead of placing the ship in Bayonne in New York Harbor.

The battleship entered the Pedro Miguel Locks Tuesday afternoon and traversed Gatun Lake before anchoring at dark outside the final set of locks. The normal transit through the canal is one day for a ship moving under its own power, but the canal commission will not allow a ship to be towed at night.

The total rise from the Pacific and drop into the Caribbean is 85 feet. On Tuesday night, the ship was 85 feet above sea level. It will be lowered today to sea level. The 50-mile journey is being made at about 4 to 5 knots an hour.

A canal official said the transit of the "impressive old girl" has been flawless so far.

"She behaved so well. We were expecting problems, but they didn't happen," said Sandor Litai, marine traffic control supervisor for the canal commission. "Too bad progress has made her into a dinosaur that must be towed."

He said the ship should enter the Atlantic breakwater outside Cristobal by 3 p.m. today.

Litai said much planning preceded the transit because the battleship is so wide and was not under power. But he said that as far as river traffic is concerned, the ship is "just another vessel." He said other ships are continuing to travel in both directions while the New Jersey is in the canal. The commission is charging the state of New Jersey $300,000 for the tow - the largest amount ever paid for a naval vessel.

For most of the 200 New Jerseyans who came to see the ship enter the canal, it was the first time they had seen the battleship in person.

"I came because of my dad, and I'm living this through his eyes," said Chip Moran, also of Haddon Township, during the tour of the canal and the stone ruins of Old Panama. "This experience has been great, and to see the pride on the military veterans' faces yesterday as they watched the ship was really something."

Chip Moran also is a former Philadelphia Naval Shipyard worker. Others in the contingent included Camden County Freeholder Patricia Jones, Camden County Improvement Authority Executive Director Philip Rowan and Gloucester County College business professor Frank Fletcher. "I am so filled up every time I've seen her the past three days, I can almost cry every time," said Jones, co-founder of the nonprofit alliance that hopes to bring the ship to the Camden waterfront.

Some in the group were not among the 60 people invited by Gov. Christie Whitman to be aboard the ship when it entered the locks Monday. While some were disappointed, others who watched the ship from an observation tower at the canal said they were not upset.

"I would have rather been outside the ship anyway, because you couldn't get good pictures of it coming in if you were on board," Fletcher said.

Two couples from Toms River - lawyer Bob Paschon and his wife, Karen, and Realtor Byron Kotzas and his wife, Mary - were not lucky enough to be on the ship Monday, but came aboard for a tour Sunday.

"We loved it," said Karen Paschon, who teaches high school in Toms River. "Watching it from the tower was fascinating, but we feel everyone from New Jersey who came here should have been able to get on board. There seemed to be room."

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