November 12, 1999
Veterans greet New Jersey up close
RON KARAFIN/Courier-Post People crowd the rail of the ferry Twin capes to see the New Jersey as it proceeds up the Delaware River.
By JONATHAN SCHUPPE
WILMINGTON, Del. - Though delayed by mechanical failures and foul weather, the timing couldn't have been more perfect.
On a blustery Veterans Day, the USS New Jersey returned to its birthplace while hundreds of former crew members watched the homecoming aboard a Delaware River ferry.
Many passengers were 18-year-olds when they joined the New Jersey's first crew during World War II to fight in the Pacific. Others served during the Korean War, the Vietnam War or in the early 1980s as peacekeeping forces in Lebanon.
"I can't think of a better way to spend Veterans Day," said Bruno Bottona, a Korean War veteran from Chester, Pa. "I'm meeting people for the first time in 45 years."
"She's finally coming back to New Jersey, where we're going to share her with the rest of the world," added Erwin Sladewski of Cleveland, a "plank owner," or member of the New Jersey's original crew.
The ferry left the Port of Wilmington, circled the New Jersey just south of the Delaware Memorial Bridge at 10:30 a.m. and followed it four miles up the Delaware River.
Later in the day, the New Jersey ended its 5,800-mile voyage around North America at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. Aided by four tug
boats, the retired warship crept up river while Coast Guard boats, pleasure boats and even a Jet Skier motored around. A fireboat blasted seven water cannons in the air as four F-16 Air National Guard fighter jets roared overhead.
The battleship will remain in the shipyard until the Navy decides whether it will be moved to Bayonne or Camden as a floating museum.
As the ferry first approached the New Jersey, veterans crowded on the windy decks. The venerable battleship looked worn, her gray coat peeling and rusty.
"She looks beat up, but she's great," said Ray Richards, a plank owner from Toms River. He recalled the New Jersey as a beacon of protection for troops fighting on Pacific shores. "From the Marshall Islands to Okinawa, we were there," Richards said.
The veterans said they preferred Thursday to focus on their happier memories. But some admitted disappointment that more of their fellow crew members couldn't join them on the ferry.
Many of the 1,000 passes distributed by Gov. Christie Whitman's office and the Department of Military and Veterans' Affairs went to Garden State veterans not linked to the ship.
"We had 4,000 to 6,000 phone calls (seeking passes)," explained Maj. Gen. Paul Glazar, the department's adjutant general. "We tried to take care of everybody."
A beaming Bill Paradiso, a Vietnam War crew member, said the New Jersey's battle reputation made her "the Cadillac of ships to serve on."
"I'll bring my kids to see her," he said, "and tell them, 'This is what daddy did.'"