November 12, 1999
Unsinkable memories of legendary ship
By RICHARD PEARSALL
Men who go down to the sea in battleships don't cry easily, Helen Collins says.
"Twice," the Palmyra resident said Thursday aboard the ferry Twin Capes, referring to her husband of 53 years, former Machinist's Mate Third Class Russell N. Collins.
"Once when our son Doug broke his collarbone. And once when I was in the hospital for surgery."
Make that three times.
The third time did not come quickly Thursday, as Collins, 74, was reunited with a ship that had been both home and protectress to him from 1943 to 1946.
Like many World War II veterans on the ferry, Collins was relatively subdued, stoic even, as the MV Twin Capes approached his old ship, down one side and up the other.
Then, about noon, a squadron of World War II fighter planes - single-propped, glass canopied, spewing smoke from their gasoline engines - roared over the battleship at low altitude.
They sounded like a movie to many on board.
They sounded like yesterday to Collins, who was looking across 50 yards of water at the spot on the New Jersey, halfway up the superstructure, where he stood general quarters.
Tears - more of a glistening, really - came unbidden to his eyes.
Collins' job during general quarters was to feed ammunition into a 20 mm anti-aircraft gun.
"They liked to come in at dawn, " he said of the Japanese Zeros, "when the sun was in our eyes. But we put out so much steel. So many guns. So many shells. It was a wall of steel."
No pilot ever got through - not even the most fanatical Kamikaze - and the New Jersey came through the war without a single combat fatality.
But Collins and his shipmates did not have the comfort of hindsight.
"Of course we were scared," he said. "But we were young, too. We didn't have the perspective, I guess you'd call it, to be as scared as we should have been."
On either side of the platform where Collins and a half-dozen other men fed the 20 mm guns ammunition were mounts bearing the big, 5-inch guns that lobbed shrapnel-bearing shells into the enemy-clogged air.
Collins recalled the sound of those guns, more jarring he said than the big 16-inch guns for which battleships are famous.
"The 16-inch guns roared. But the 5-inchers cracked."
The sound waves from the 5-inch mounts, Collins said, set the deck beneath them "rippling like water" and "literally took the buttons off" their denim shirts.
Collins was one of several hundred veterans who joined Gov. Christie Whitman and a contingent of politicians and press on Thursday - Veterans Day - on a ferry that embarked from the Port of Wilmington to escort the New Jersey beneath the Delaware Memorial Bridge and a few hundred yards up the river.
The ferry, chartered from the Cape May-Lewes line, circled the battleship several times and approached from different angles to give those on board ample opportunity to appreciate it.
Collins, clad in blue windbreaker and cap, both bearing the USS New Jersey's insignia, and other New Jersey veterans on board greeted each other by asking, "What division were you in?"
Collins was a machinist's mate, part of "M" division, charged with keeping the four engine rooms that power the ship's four 53,000-shaft-horsepower propellers.
The New Jersey sailors would swap a war story or two, shake hands, move on.
"It was a huge ship'' - carrying more than 3,000 enlisted men during World War II - ''so you didn't get to know too many people."
"I didn't get to the bridge," he said, "and John (a friend he met later) never got to the engine room."
He remembers some of his shipmates well, particularly the men he stood watch with, including one from Kings Mountain, N.C., who had a lower bunk where he regularly retreated to read the Bible.
"Until one day he got a 'Dear John' letter from his sweetheart. The Bible went. He started smoking. He just generally went to hell."
Collins never got one of those letters from Helen Stepler, whom he met at Camden's Woodrow Wilson High School, where she was a cheerleader and he was a drummer in the band.
They were dating when he joined the Navy in May of 1943, shortly before his 18th birthday, and they married in September 1946, six months after he returned from war.
For 40 years he worked as a machine repairman at the Langston Corp., a machinery manufacturer in Cherry Hill.
Two children, five grandchildren and all those years later, Collins found himself in Wilmington on Thursday morning. They stayed at a motel near the port Wednesday night.
On the ship, a messenger from the previous watch would have woken him - to make sure that watch had replacements - and breakfast would have been on a tin tray.
Thursday morning Collins woke at 5 a.m.
"He told me he felt sick to his stomach," his wife said later, on the ferry. "He was pretty excited. Look at him, he can't get enough of this."
As a man who didn't just serve on the USS New Jersey, but rather served on the battleship throughout World War II, Collins found himself in demand to explain this or that aspect of the tug-towed battleship that kept appearing and re-appearing alongside the ferry.
He didn't mind.
And neither did his listeners.
"It's an honor," Assemblyman Larry Chatzidakis, the Mount Laurel Republican, said as he stuck out his hand to Collins, who was standing next to him at the rail.
When he first spotted the ship, off in the distance below the Delaware Memorial Bridge, Collins was silent.
"It's dead in the water," he murmured.
To see it this way - stripped down, boarded up, peeling and lifeless - hurt, he confessed.
But the closer he got, the more questions he answered, the better Collins could see it the way it used to be.
"That's where's we'd gather topside," he said, pointing to a spot on the fantail where his division gathered for fresh air. "Snipes," they call the firemen and boiler technicians and machinists mates who work below decks. The "black gang."
And there, pointing to a closed hatch not far beneath the bridge, that's where he watched the bow - the whole, huge, upsweeping bow of his battleship - crash below the surface of the sea during a typhoon.
"The forward turret went under," Collins said, speaking of the 16-inch guns in front of the bridge. "We just stood there praying, 'come up, come up.' "
It did, but three other ships in the task force did not.
"We lost three 'tin cans' in that storm," he said, referring to three destroyers that capsized.
It wasn't the only time or only reason he thanked God for the New Jersey, Collins said.
"All that armor. All those guns."
As Thursday's ferry ride wore on, spirits rose and conversations grew warmer. Before many were even aware of it, the New Jersey began pulling away, heading on up the river toward Philadelphia as the ferry turned and returned to Wilmington.
Collins bid adieu to some new-found friends.
"Jersey people are the best people," he said to one group.
"Right," they replied.
"Same time next year," he began to say in parting.
And then, to a new friend from North Jersey, Frank Musorrafiti, a retired Navy officer, "Same time next year - in Camden."
"Same time next year," Musorrafiti smiled back, "wherever."