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South Jersey

November 12, 1999
There when it was launched, old tug escorts battleship home

The tugboat Jupiter carries a Camden County contingent to watch the ship's arrival Thursday.

Courier-Post staff

ABOARD TUG JUPITER - With the sun in his face and bucking winds in a choppy Delaware River, tug captain Jack McNair sailed one historic craft to meet another - the battleship USS New Jersey.

Turning the highly polished wooden wheel in his cozy pilothouse on the upper deck, the Maple Shade resident steered the Jupiter past the battleship on one side and then circled it, making the maneuver look easy in the white-capped water.

Even for a retired docking pilot who worked on the river for 34 years, the event welcoming the battleship back to its birthplace at the former Philadelphia Naval Shipyard was moving.

"This doesn't happen too often. It's a once-in-a-lifetime event," said tug volunteer McNair, 80, who was happy to be at the helm on a trip with Camden County officials, ex-crew members of the battleship, other veterans and former shipbuilders.

The 97-year-old tug, now operated by the Ship Preservation Guild of Philadelphia, has a major connection to the New Jersey, which itself survived three major wars. The Jupiter was the first tug to catch a line from the battleship when it was launched 57 years ago in 1942.

Tug volunteer Charlie Shores, also 80, was on the Mercury, a sister tug that also handled the battleship's launching.

"It was not only the biggest battleship, but it turned out to be just what they had hoped - the best. But to most of us who've worked the river, she's just another ship."

The tug had hoped to give the battleship a ceremonial nudge during docking or afterward, but it was not to be.

"We would have liked to get alongside her, but I understand they couldn't let us. We have people on board and someone could get hurt," he said.

Instead, the tug, now run by volunteers like McNair, was the only ship to salute the New Jersey. It bellowed one long blast of its horn as the steel warrior was secured, then turned for home.

Many of the Jupiter's passengers on Thursday also had an affiliation with the ship.

As the USS New Jersey came into view, former crew member Bob Walters of Cinnaminson stood silently on the front deck of the tug and could not speak.

Thoughts and emotions at seeing the ship upon which he served more than 40 years ago overcame words as he stood there - the hair not covered by his New Jersey battleship cap blowing in 25 mph winds.

"She looks like my home coming home," said Walters, 62, who served aboard the "Big J" after the Korean War, from 1955 to 1957. "I couldn't talk a couple of minutes ago because I was thinking of the buddies of mine that aren't here any more to see it."

The sight of the ship in the home waters of the Delaware River was overwhelming for Camden County freeholders, particularly Patricia Jones, a co-founder of the Home Port Alliance group trying to bring the ship to Camden as a floating tourist attraction.

"Whew! How exciting! I'm just trying to calm down," said Jones, who was on board the battleship for part of its transit of the Panama Canal last month.

However, she described Thursday's homecoming as "bittersweet." The ship is so close to Camden - yet still not quite there.

"We'll be having a few anxious weeks until the Navy decides whether the ship will go to Camden or Bayonne," she said. The Navy has promised a decision in January.

Assemblyman Joe Roberts, R-Camden, was overwhelmed.

"It's unbelievable this day has finally arrived," he said.

A banner on one side of the Jupiter made clear the position of the county government: "From birthplace to berthplace: Home Port Alliance" - a reference to Camden.

Gene Press of Oaklyn, a crew member in the 1980s, said he was happy to have back a hero that served the country so well.

Jeff Cary, 40, of West Deptford, was seeing the ship for the second day and was still on what he called a "high" from his visit to it Wednesday in the Delaware Bay aboard a Cape May-Lewes ferry.

"Live from the Jupiter!" he shouted into a cell phone as he called his wife at work to share his experience while the tug circled the battleship. "It is one of the most beautiful sights. The sun is glowing in the water! Rembrandt, eat your heart out!"

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