November 11, 1999
First to greet battleship do so with awe and reverence
By WILLIAM H. SOKOLIC
Shawn Sullivan, Courier-Post Harry Ruhle of Westmont gets a close look at the USS New Jersey on Wednesday from the deck of the Cape May ferry.
ABOARD MV CAPE MAY
Art Conover's brief sojourn on the battleship New Jersey left an indelible memory that aging refuses to erase. So Conover brought 35 of his family and friends aboard a Cape May-Lewes ferry Wednesday afternoon to witness the celebrated warship's entrance into Delaware Bay.
The last time he set eyes onthe New Jersey was in August1944, when he disembarkedafter 11 months in the Pacific.
"It's just as I rememberedit, only it was cleaner back then," said Conover, the 76-year-old patriarch of a family of farmers from the Green Creek section of Middle Township.
Conover also will be aboard a boat with Gov. Christie Whitman today to witness the Veterans Day docking of the New Jersey at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, completing a 5,800-mile journey from its former home in Bremerton, Wash.
"This is the biggest thing
that's happened to my father since he got married," said Robert Conover, also of Green Creek. As the ferry circled the imposing gray hull of the New Jersey, 1,000 men, women and children stood in almost reverential silence. They were
among the first to greet the highly decorated warship up on her return to the Delaware
River. Many thousands more will venture out today for their glimpse of the most decorated battleship in U.S. naval history.
Launched in late 1942, the New Jersey traveled 200,000 miles in the Pacific during World War II. It was reactivated in 1950 for the Korean War,
and again in 1968 for Vietnam. The warship underwent modernization in 1981 and was sent to Lebanon, and, later, to the Persian Gulf before its last retirement in 1991.
"It's amazing that in its entire career, only one life was lost on the New Jersey," said Harry Ruhle of Westmont, who joined his best friend, Rich Sandone of Marlton, on the ferry. Neither man served
aboard the ship Ruhle was in the Army in the early 1960s; Sandone in the Navy, aboard the missile cruiser USS Boston.
"Anyone who served on a ship has an affinity for this moment," said Sandone, 57. "What this ship did was help preserve our way of life. I'm just thrilled to be a part of this."
Ruhle, 58, swelled with pride as he watched the ferry pass the New Jersey's port side.
"The New Jersey is our home state battleship, so it has a special place."
Raphael Del Palazzo, 91, helped build the engine of the New Jersey at the Navy yard. Though he uses wheelchair, the Camden native wouldn't miss this trip for anything.
"This has been his dream," said his wife, Aileen. "He's built a shrine to the New Jersey in the house." Conover's family says much the same thing.
As Art watched the New Jersey slide by, he called his wife, Marie, on a cell phone to describe the scene.
"It's right in front of us," he told her, eyes zeroed in on the starboard side.
Conover, one of 2,600 stationed on the New Jersey in World War II, manned the middle gun on the stern end, loading the turret for firing, a task he accomplished in 23 seconds, he recalled. After his stint on the New Jersey, he transferred to the much smaller, and less steady, USS Vinton, which also saw action in the Pacific and survived a typhoon off Okinawa.
"Seeing this ship makes my grandfather really happy," said Jacque McCabe of Lower Township, who brought along her 11-year-old daughter, Courtney Petersen, the youngest member of the Conover clan on the ferry.
Jacque's cousin, Josette Arenberg, of Cape May Court House, said her grandfather talks about his experiences in World War II all the time. "He knows so much about the boat," said Art's daughter, Judy Cowan of Green Creek.
The Navy still must decide the New Jersey's ultimate destination as a floating museum: Bayonne or the Camden Waterfront. The consensus on the ferry clearly favored Camden.
It will be a shot in the arm for tourism in South Jersey, Ruhle said.
"With the E-Centre and the Aquarium and across from Penn's Landing, that's where the ship belongs," Sandone said.