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South Jersey

November 12, 1999
Thousands welcome home battleship USS New Jersey

CHRIS LaCHALL/Courier-Post
Small pleasure boats surround the USS New Jersey as it approaches the former Navy shipyard at Philadelphia, where it will be docked until the Navy makes a decision on its final resting place - Camden or Bayonne.

Courier-Post staff

In a celebration befitting a war hero, more than 25,000 spectators crowded the shoreline, bobbed on boats and stood on rooftops Thursday to welcome the battleship USS New Jersey home to the Delaware River.

When the New Jersey was finally docked at the former Navy shipyard in Philadelphia in brilliant sunlight, the bow of the historic ship pointed across the river toward her namesake state - where she eventually will become a floating naval museum.

Camden and Bayonne are battling for the right to host the ship. The Navy promises a decision in January.

Along a 20-mile stretch of the river, in Delaware, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, wide-eyed kids and misty-eyed veterans cheered the return of the nation's most decorated warship - appropriately, on Veterans Day.

At the Valero Energy Co. refinery in Gibbstown, workers stood on rooftops to watch the 887-foot ship pass by. Hundreds also crowded a narrow strip of beach across from the shipyard. And hundreds more gathered on the landing of the defunct League Island Ferry, which once transported South Jersey workers to the Navy shipyard where the New Jersey was built.

The battleship was towed upriver accompanied by a flotilla of more than 100 recreational boats that rocked in the choppy water. Helicopters also trailed the ship to Philadelphia, a city that last saw the battleship in 1968, when its electrical system was overhauled and a helipad installed.

"It was mind-boggling to see the number of people who turned out. It was pretty awe-inspiring," said Kaare Ogaard, 58, skipper of the Sea Victory tugboat, which towed the "Big J" from Washington state to Philadelphia.

At first light Thursday, Ogaard noticed flashes coming from the New Jersey side of the river.

"I said to myself, 'What is that?' It was people lined along the beach taking pictures."

The ship passed below the Delaware Memorial Bridge at 10 a.m.

Shortly after 3 p.m., the mighty gray behemoth, recognizable by the huge "62" on its bow, was nudged into its berth at Pier 4 by six tugboats, completing a 61-day, 5,800-mile journey from the mothball fleet in Bremerton, Wash.

On board the ship were 10 line handlers, two river pilots and Capt. Allan Anderson of Crowley Marine Services, the tugboat company that brought the ship here.

"It was great to ride her up the river and see the great greeting - the people on the shore, the docks, the boats, the news coverage. It brings back a lot of those memories of when people would see a battleship and appreciate its fire power and its superiority as a fighting vessel," Anderson said.

At Fort Mott State Park in Pennsville, a crowd of 3,000 lined the riverbank at 8 a.m.

The Salem High School marching band played patriotic tunes and a military color guard stood at attention as the "Big J" passed the fort, built in 1896 to help guard the entrance to the Delaware River.

Bob and Marian Moran of Clementon were awestruck.

"It gives me chills," said Mrs. Moran, 71.

"It'll look really great sitting up there on the (Camden) Waterfront," said Bob Moran, 73, who had last seen the USS New Jersey when he participated in the 1945 invasion of Okinawa in World War II.

The biggest crowd was at Red Bank Battlefield Park in National Park, where police estimated the crowd at up to 10,000.

Bands played patriotic songs, while veterans, children and their families traded binoculars and cameras as the ship came into view. Despite hours of waiting in lines for shuttle buses, portable toilets and concessions, people were jubilant.

"History's being made," said George Brown, 74, of Williamstown, a VFW commander. "It's a pleasure to see the ship come here to New Jersey where it was built."

The event caused traffic gridlock. In National Park, police shut down the borough to outside traffic from 2:45 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. because people were still trying to come in even as the ship passed by the viewing area. After the ship left, it took about 90 minutes to clear the borough.

In the Salem County town of Penns Grove, just above the Delaware Memorial Bridge, an estimated 4,500 watched the ship pass.

A fireboat blasted seven water cannons in the air as four F-16 Air National Guard fighter jets roared above. An Army National Guard battery of 105 mm howitzers also boomed a 19-gun salute, shaking the ground and sending a cloud of smoke into the overcast sky.

When it was launched in Philadelphia on Dec. 7, 1942, the "Big J" created a wave so big it drenched onlookers across the river in New Jersey. During a half century of service, the ship earned 16 battle stars and numerous other awards. It never stopped making waves or impressing witnesses to its awesome combination of brute power and graceful lines.

Decommissioned in 1991 and stricken from the Navy's roster in 1999, the grand old battleship - one of four of the largest American battleships ever built - will remain at the shipyard until the Navy decides where it will begin the next phase of its service as a floating museum and memorial in New Jersey.

The coming decision sparked a North-South rivalry between two groups that helped bring the New Jersey home: The Home Port Alliance, which favors a Camden berth, and the New Jersey Battleship Commission, which backs Bayonne. Despite the feud, members of both groups expressed hope Thursday for unanimous support once the site is chosen.

"When this is all over, it's going to be a friendly thing," said Assemblyman Joseph Azzolina, R-Monmouth, the commission's leader. "All we care about is that the ship be preserved so everyone can enjoy it."

Added state Sen. John Matheussen, R-Gloucester, an alliance member: "Just being part of a team that helped get the ship back here has been great."

Gov. Christie Whitman joined hundreds of spectators on a ferry that left the Port of Wilmington, circled the New Jersey just south of the Delaware Memorial Bridge, and followed it four miles up the Delaware River.

"Wherever she goes is going to be the right place," Whitman said.

Raymond Kirk, a boatswain's mate on the New Jersey from 1942 to 1946, also watched the ship from the ferry.

Kirk noted the battleship was showing signs of age - including rust, which he had to scrape off while serving on the New Jersey. But the blemishes were a minor distraction.

"I love it. She's a beautiful lady," he said.

Some boaters waved American flags and circled the ship outside the safety zone established by the Coast Guard. The flag aboard one was bigger than the boat, almost hiding the passengers as it flapped in the wind. Passengers wore winter coats and even gloves as temperatures dropped into the mid-40s and a stiff breeze made it seem colder.

Gun salutes that sent puffs of smoke into the fall air greeted the ship in Penns Grove, Pennsylvania's Fort Mifflin and at other locations along the route.

The 97-year-old Jupiter, one of the river tugs that took the first lines from the ship after its launching at the old Navy yard in 1942, idled near the shipyard with a group of Camden County officials, veterans and shipyard workers on board.

Passenger Philip Scelso, a retired Navy shipyard toolmaker who helped build the New Jersey, filled with pride as he trained his binoculars on the ship.

"I feel a part of it, proud and honored. I feel like somebody now being part of this celebration. I never felt like I was anybody before," said Scelso, 81, of Atco.

As the battlewagon's arrival grew near, the Philadelphia shipyard parking lot filled with excitement. Many of those waiting had a personal interest.

Teresa Peiffer, a retiree from Sweetwater, Atlantic County, was typical.

"My husband was 16 when he left high school and went to work at the shipyard. He helped build the New Jersey, but he never got to serve on it because he was drafted into the Army. I'm very proud of the ship and all the medals it has won."

"I am looking for some of the people I worked with," said Alfred Decesari, 81, of Franklinville. "I'm a plank owner," he said, a reference to his being in the original crew. His time on the ship was spent below decks in engineering.

Bill Brown of Williamstown spent his World War II days in a submarine, but he has strong connections to the battleship.

"In high school, I had a summer job at the shipyard, and my dad was responsible for installing the main engines on the New Jersey."

U.S. Rep. Frank LoBiondo, R-Vineland, also greeted the ship.

"It's a great day for New Jersey and a great day for veterans to have this battleship come back home," he said.

LoBiondo said he worked closely with U.S. Reps. Rob Andrews of Haddon Heights, and Jim Saxton of Mount Holly, to get the ship to its namesake state. He singled out Saxton for what he called an enormous investment of time and effort in this project.

"This is without a doubt the most meaningful Veterans Day I can remember celebrating," Saxton said. "When the ship came under the Delaware Memorial Bridge, it was cold and stormy, but it made me feel warm inside."

Many spectators said the battleship's arrival on Veterans Day gave the holiday special significance.

"We decided it would be a unique Veterans Day that our boys will always remember," said Kevin O'Malley of Little Silver, Monmouth County, who waited on the shipyard dock with his wife Louise and sons Cody, 8, and Clifton, 7.

"We can't wait to see it. It's awesome," Cody said.

For Art Hayton, a Vietnam veteran from Willingboro, Thursday was a double pleasure.

"I got a chance to look at my old ship for one, and I got a chance to see part of our heritage - the New Jersey," he said, explaining that the New Jersey will be temporarily moored alongside the aircraft carrier America, on which he served 3 1/2 years.

With its 212,000-horsepower engines silent and four giant propellers locked in place, the New Jersey left Washington state on Sept. 12 attached to the tug Sea Victory with a 2.75-inch steel cable. Without a soul aboard, the huge ship traveled down the Pacific coast to the Panama Canal, which connects the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. To that point everything went smoothly.

The night before it was to start through the series of canal locks, near-gale-force winds threatened to send the 888-foot, 45-ton battleship onto the 149-foot tug. That was avoided when the tug's engines were throttled up and the ship was pulled into the wind for the rest of the night.

Two days out of the canal, a mechanical problem on one of the tug's two engines forced the Sea Victory to go to Miami for repairs while a less powerful tug brought in from Louisiana pulled the New Jersey. After the Sea Victory rejoined the ship, weather slowed the duo along the Eastern Seaboard.

Though its armaments were changed and updated over the years, the ship was most famous for its 16-inch guns that were capable of firing a missile with the mass of a compact car 26 miles. That distance gave extra protection to sailors. During all the years of conflict ranging from World War II to the Gulf War, only one died in action. Seaman Robert Osterwind was killed when the ship was bombarding targets off Korea in 1951.

When the huge guns fired, the ship was moved sideways and the deck was shrouded in dark smoke, which gave it another nickname, the "Black Dragon."

The tow cost the state of New Jersey $2 million. It is estimated that an additional $15 million is needed to get the battleship ready as a tourist attraction. That cost would be borne by various organizations, public and private. The most optimistic estimates would have the work completed in six months after the Navy decides whether it will go to Camden or Bayonne.

As she watched the armada of tugboats maneuver the New Jersey into its berth at the shipyard Thursday afternoon, Terry Schneider, a 37-year-old nurse from National Park, stood along the river in West Deptford, holding up a homemade sign welcoming the battleship home.

"It was built here," she said, "and it should stay in Camden."

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