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South Jersey

November 12, 1999
Well-wishers came early, stayed late

Courier-Post staff

NATIONAL PARK - They started coming to Red Bank Battlefield Park at 4 a.m. By mid-morning Thursday, hundreds of people were milling around, still hours before the USS New Jersey was scheduled to arrive.

Eventually, up to 10,000 people were at the park, considered the best ship-spotting site in South Jersey, to welcome the battleship home.

They passed the time examining old photographs of the ship, visiting the park museum, trading war stories. Vendors sold hot dogs as three bands, including the Pitman Hobo Band, played patriotic songs to a toe-tapping throng.

Grandparents played with youngsters, and children walked along the beach despite overcast skies and a slight wind. Large tents set up for veterans were largely abandoned as people dragged the folding chairs closer to the shoreline for a better view.

Then, about 1:45 p.m., the clouds cleared, the sun came out and the battleship appeared on the horizon. As the ship worked its way up the river, people left their chairs, snapped pictures and traded binoculars. Some waved posters and flags, while others simply watched in silent awe until the ship passed from view, about 2:15 p.m.

Richard Saxton, 74, watched quietly from the park's shore as his former ship glided up the Delaware River. A resident of Okeechobee, Fla., Saxton and his wife, Joyce, drove for two days to National Park, just to see the USS New Jersey return to its birthplace.

Saxton hadn't seen the ship since 1945 when he left it in Tokyo Bay after serving as a signalman for 2 1/2 years.

"It gives you a funny feeling in your stomach to see it after all these years," Saxton said. When he served on it, he didn't feel so sentimental about the battlewagon. He remembered begging for shore leave after a typhoon turned him seasick.

"It was murder then," he said.

Nearly everyone at the park voiced support to keep the ship in Camden, except for a few busloads of visitors from Bayonne.

Volunteers said they gathered more than 2,000 signatures for a petition to keep the ship on the Delaware River, and others handed out nearly five miles of blue ribbon to raise awareness about efforts to keep it here.

Patrick McCann, 62, of Marlton, stood on the park's hill to get a good view of the ship.

He was impressed by the number of people who came to the park.

"I hope that helps," he said. "Maybe we can convince them that it should stay here."

Alice Press, 67, of Thorofare, was at Red Bank Battlefield Park when the ship was christened. She came to welcome it home.

"I'm thrilled to tears," Press said.

When she was a child, the ship didn't mean as much to her. The most vivid memory of that day was the wave caused by the ship's launching.

"This huge wave came rushing up the shore," Press said, with a laugh. "We all went running away from it."

Cale Davidson, 88, of Glendora, served as a surgical technician during World War II.

"To a vet, it means a lot," Davidson said, before walking up and down the park's shoreline. "I hope it stays here."

Stephanie Bashar, 49, of Westville, arrived at the park at 8 a.m. with her 8-year-old son, Joyel, who found some kids to play with during the long wait.

"It's patriotism," she said. "I feel proud and happy to be here."

Mary Neale of Audubon brought her 10-year-old grandson, Tom Billson. Her husband explained the importance of Veterans Day to the boy, she said, and told him about the bombing of the battleship USS Arizona in Pearl Harbor.

"It's pretty neat," Tom said. ''But I wish both ships were coming down today.''

Megan Dawson, 14, of Erial, said the history club at her school, Highland High, is working on a project about the battleship.

She picked up some petitions to take back to school, in order to urge Navy officials to keep the ship on the Delaware River.

"It's cool," she said. "I want it to stay here."

Jean Stinnitt, 73, of Glendora, bought a red, white and blue spangled hat for the occasion.

She is a fan of veterans and said it was a big day for them.

"It just brings back memories," Stinnitt said over the din of a patriotic band. "I think it will stay here, don't you?"

Sallie String, 36, of National Park, said a lot of her friends parked at her home and walked over to the park. She looked out over the crowd pressed to the fence along the shoreline.

"This is unbelievable," String said. "It's mobbed."

String brought along her six children.

"We wanted to see the ship. It's history."

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