November 12, 1999
At Fort Mott State Park, thousands greet ship in early morning
Barbara Erickson /Gannett News Service The USS New Jersey passes under the Delaware Memorial Bridge
By MARK LEISER
Gannett News Service
PENNSVILLE - Her faded gray hull blended eerily into overcast morning skies.
The battleship USS New Jersey passed silently, guns lowered and decks unmanned, an indelible sign she is now outclassed by a more modern fleet.
"That may be true," said Leo Haugen, 72, wiping a tear from his wind-burned cheek, "but she looks beautiful to me."
Haugen, a Korean War Army veteran from Landisville, was one of about 3,000 servicemen and curiosity-seekers who lined the banks of Fort Mott State Park on Thursday morning to welcome home the "Big J."
The site was one of the first public viewing spots on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River as the battleship completed the final leg of its two-month journey home.
Led by the tugboat Sea Victory, the New Jersey emerged from the morning mist near the Salem nuclear facility about 6:15 a.m.
From there, it inched its way through 10 miles of narrow Delaware River channel amid a dozen pleasure boats until passing within a quarter-mile of the 19th-century fort.
No applause or shouts of support greeted the rust-stained battleship.
Instead, onlookers armed with binoculars and tiny American flags stood still in a quiet admiration spoiled only by the buzz of four news helicopters and the clicking of point-and-shoot cameras.
They stood shoulder-to-shoulder with strangers, leaning on metal pier railings wrapped with red, white and blue streamers.
They traded emotional tales with veterans they never knew.
Ed Sawyer of Millville had never seen a battleship up close. Sawyer, 73, only had heard their booming fire echoing through the night skies at Iwo Jima and Okinawa.
Robert White, a former Navy aviation mechanic from Newfield, told how he managed to get aboard the New Jersey for one day during his 12 years in the service.
The ship may carry the ghosts of World War II, said White, 56. But it represents the spirit of every sailor.
"This is the end of an era," White said. "It's the Navy at its best."
And although George Joyce of Upper Deerfield never served in the military, he praised the timing of the vessel's arrival on Veterans Day, whether orchestrated or coincidental.
"If it weren't for ships like this, we wouldn't be standing here watching it today," said Joyce, 58.
Still, you didn't have to live through combat to appreciate standing vigil in the crisp autumn chill.
Dozens of wide-eyed children enjoying a day off from school mingled with military men, eavesdropping on war stories they'd never read in any textbook.
Charlene McCardell of Estell Manor scoured newspapers the last three weeks for the ship's updated itinerary so she and her three sons - Donald, Douglas and Devin - could be first in line to witness its homecoming.
While many of his friends slept, 12-year-old Donald offered a simple message to American veterans, including his late grandfather, a Marine Corps raider in World War II: "Thank you for serving our country. You did a good deed."
As the ship passed around a bend and faded from view about 8:15 a.m., Charlene McCardell embraced her three boys.
"You guys are lucky," she said softly. "You just saw history."