November 04, 1999
`I looked and said, `My God, I never saw a ship that big'‚'
By CAROL COMEGNO
Al Schell, Courier-Post John Horan of Cherry Hill and Russell Collins Jr. of Panama visit the proposed site for the USS New Jersey along the riverfront in Camden. The two are orginal crew members of the battleship from WWII.
The sheer size of the battleship USS New Jersey is as mind-boggling today as it was more than 55 years ago.
It is nearly as long as three football fields and wider than any other ship of its kind ever built.
Its nine 16-inch guns the biggest in the Navy fleet loom over the deck.
World War II veterans who first served on the spanking new battleship may have fading memories of all they did aboard her but they remember how overwhelmed they were at the first glimpse of the ship that was launched at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard on Dec. 7, 1942 a year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
The Iowa-class battleship the biggest ever built by the U.S. was like a small city with a crew of more than 3,000 and enough firepower to daunt any enemy.
“I looked and said, `My God, I never saw a ship that big,'‚” recalled Russell Collins Jr., then a newly trained recruit who joined the ship in Norfolk after it was commissioned in Philadelphia on May 23, 1943.
“Being from Jersey and being on its namesake ship, I felt proud of it,” said Collins, an original crew member now living in Palmyra. “I was also glad to have all that armor around me. If I were to be at sea in war, that was the ship to be on.”
John Horan of Cherry Hill, another original crew member who has a piece of the original wooden deck and was among the first to buy the new battleship license plate in 1996, said he viewed life on the ship as an exciting adventure because most crew members were teen-agers.
About 80 percent of the crew were rookie seamen serving on their first ship and, in most cases, their only ship during World War II.
Despite their inexperience, the ship became the most decorated battleship in U.S. history with 16 battle stars. During World War II, it earned nine battle stars, never experienced a direct enemy hit and never suffered a single casualty. Its battles included the Philippine Sea, Leyte Gulf, Luzon, all in the Philippines; Iwo Jima, Okinawa and the Marshall Islands.
In a Jan. 25, 1945, telegram that Adm. William Halsey directed be read over the ship's loudspeakers, Halsey praised the crew for having driven the enemy off the sea.
“I am so proud of you that no words can express my feelings. Superlatively well done,” he wrote.
The “Big J,” as she was called, was so huge that a sailor never knew most of the crew.
He often worked and played with the same group of sailors.
Shipboard experiences varied with duty stations.
Collins was a machinist who spent most of his time below in the No. 1 engine room, sweating in 100-degree-plus temperatures amid the deafening noise of machinery.
When he was not on duty, eating or sleeping, he was topside getting fresh air, always hanging out on one part of the deck with his buddies.
Horan was a signalman. During the naval battles, he often had a bird's-eye view of ships such as the aircraft carrier Princeton sinking and planes flying over, sometimes crashing into the sea.
“‚`Get 'em, get 'em, get 'em' was what they yelled when we knocked out a Japanese plane coming at us. When he would be knocked down, everybody would cheer.
“For the most part, it was a great duty assignment on the signalmen's bridge. We used lights a lot to signal because of radio silence,” he said.
He often saw the admirals on board when the USS New Jersey was a flagship.
“Adm. Halsey would sit right in front of the signal bridge in an area encased in glass,” he said.
Collins vividly remembered one incident involving Halsey, who got into a canteen line just like all the other sailors.
“An officer of the ship came down and tried to start his own line because the one we were in was so long. Halsey called him over and told him in no uncertain terms where the end of the line was,” said Collins. Horan said the deck got hit with shrapnel but only rarely during its two years in the Pacific.
“We had a few sailors hit with shrapnel but not seriously. When the carrier Franklin was firing its guns at night, a bomber strafed our superstructure. Another signalman, Vincent Carbone of Boston, got hit in the face with shrapnel,” Horan remembered.
Unlike Horan and Collins, Edgar Hill of Westville was experienced. He was an electrician who was transferred from the smaller battleship, Alabama, and his skills took him to many parts of the ship.
He described life aboard ship as “days of pure monotony highlighted by a few short days of pure nerve-racking anxiety when we were in a battle.”
For work, they wore blue shirts, blue bell-bottom dungarees and black shoes.
The work schedule was demanding: four hours on duty and eight hours off rotating around the clock, seven days a week with no weekends off, no holidays.
“It was rough at first but after a while you got used to taking cat naps,” he said.
When the ship took a recreation breather from the war, crewmen recalled, it headed to an island known as Mog-Mog, which was reached via landing craft.
The crew raised the flags, swam with their sneakers on to keep from getting cut by coral and often played baseball on the coarse sand beaches.
They described ship chow as first-rate and often ate meals of turkey, chicken, liver and ham.
Every Wednesday and Sunday, however, the menu was baked beans, corn bread and coffee.
The print shop produced fancy menus on holidays as well as a weekly newspaper. On Sundays, separate Protestant and Catholic services were held either in the mess or on deck.
While the crew ate food off metal trays, high-level officers ate from china plates with silverware made by Tiffany and Co. of New York City.
The crew slept on bunks hung from chains.
“They were five bunks high and I was on the bottom, so everyone else had to step on mine to get to the top,” Collins said.
During battles, there was no sleep.
“We often fired both the 5-inch and 16-inch guns during battles. My battle station was the No. 5 5-inch gun to stand by for possible repair,” said Hill.
“When you are way down here below deck, you feel a heck of a thump and a vibration that goes through the ship when the 16-inch guns go off,” he said.
Ear protection was holding your hands over your ears.
Collins, whose battle stations varied from loading ammunition into a 20mm machine gun topside to a gun turret powder room below, remembered feeling like a rag doll as buttons popped off sailors' shirts during the firing.
A USS New Jersey veteran of another era, former turret officer Robert Lian of Westampton, can attest to that.
He was seven stories down inside gun turret No. 2 giving firing procedure orders when the ship was in the Mediterranean Sea off Lebanon just before and after 218 Marines were killed in a bombing in Beirut in 1983.
“With all the machinery running to operate the guns, you don't hear the gunfire as much as you feel the air pressure from the firing, which feels like somebody pushing you. The pressure has broken windows on deck and even torn metal fittings off parts of the deck,” he said.
But he would not trade that experience for anything, saying there was much pride in being a battleship sailor.
“I didn't find this out until I got on a battleship but there is a spirit and camaraderie that doesn't often exist on other ships.”