November 12, 1999
Flotilla braves Delaware River current to welcome venerable ship
SHAWN SULLIVAN/Courier-Post Boaters on the Delaware observe the USS New Jersey as it approached the former Philadelphia Nval Shipyard.
By ANGELA RUCKER
ON THE DELAWARE RIVER - As choppy waves whipped up the Delaware River early Thursday morning, Jerry D'Onofrio Sr. wasn't sure just how many pleasure craft would join him and the Jay Dees, his 38-foot motor yacht, to greet the USS New Jersey on the south side of the Delaware Memorial Bridge.
It was cold. Very cold. And most of the boaters who traversed the Delaware River had put up their craft for winter, said D'Onofrio, a Willingboro resident who is chairman of the Boater Voter Coalition and had worked to arrange a flotilla of recreational craft to greet the New Jersey with a "Battlewagon Welcome."
He explained that whether a boater is piloting a runabout, yacht or battleship, they share a kinship.
"When you're a boater, you're part of a community," he said.
More than 100 watercraft of all sizes - even a kayak and water scooter - joined the lineup escorting the New Jersey to the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. Many sported American flags. Others carried signs welcoming the battleship or suggesting it be berthed in Camden.
"With all the little boats on the water, it's like you were part of a big team bringing it home," said Ron Hoguet, a Cherry Hill boater and fisherman.
So when boater after boater joined the Jay Dees along the starboard side of the New Jersey, it was like a big block party.
"This is the most exciting day I've had on the river," said D'Onofrio, whose enthusiasm was as uncontained as the sun's brilliant reflection off the river. "This is huge to me. It's a piece of maritime history."
The sheer number of boats on the river - on a day when the National Weather Service issued a small craft advisory - brought some mishaps. The Coast Guard Auxiliary performed at least four rescues, including a Pennsylvania Fish & Game vessel that required help twice.
When the ship left the docks in Bremerton, Wash., on Sept. 12, only about 10 boats saw it off, recalled William R. Marck, an aide in U.S. Rep. Jim Saxton's office.
All along the New Jersey's route from the Delaware Memorial Bridge, people lined the shores in huge crowds despite the temperature, which dropped into the mid 40s during the day.
And, in out-of-the-way pockets along the route, groups stood in twos and threes. Workers at the Valero Energy Corp. plant lined the Gibbstown shore and stood on rooftops to catch a glimpse of the battleship and its entourage, including several tugboats, a fire boat and a number of law enforcement watercraft.
Saxton, R-N.J., who was aboard the Jay Dees, perched his glasses on his forehead and peered through binoculars as he came upon the battleship resting almost a mile away in the river.
"Isn't this exciting?" he asked, before looking through the binoculars once again. "Oh my, that's really a sight."
Saxton, a member of the House Armed Services Committee, worked to ensure the battleship moved through the Panama Canal before control of the waterway is handed over to Panama.
He said he had often told audiences of his desire to see the "Big J" arriving in the Delaware and making its final trek.
"This is really a sight to behold, to see that big, beautiful ship on her way to Camden and Philadelphia," Saxton said.
Saxton and U.S. Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J., both support Camden as the final berthing site. Both said Camden has several attributes in its favor over Bayonne.
"The ship is a symbol of a time that was very important in people's lives," said Andrews, who also was aboard the Jay Dees Thursday morning.
"People believe that this is part of their legacy."
And, bringing the battleship up the Delaware on Veterans Day only made its arrival sweeter, several said.
"Veterans Day recognizes liberty and life," said D'Onofrio, who served in the Air Force during the Korean War. "For veterans, it's a day of camaraderie. That's the day we come home."