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South Jersey

November 12, 1999
Arrival brings back memories for veterans

PARIS L. GRAY/Courier-Post
George Sinitsky, a Mantua resident and commander of a disabled veterans group in Gloucester County, joins others at Red Bank Battlefield Park in welcoming the 'Big J'.

Courier-Post staff

NATIONAL PARK - Thousands of people from throughout New Jersey, including many men with graying hair and vivid memories, cheered as the Battleship New Jersey was towed home Thursday, destined to be restored as a floating museum.

Eight years have passed since the New Jersey was mothballed, and even more time has gone by since it last fired its famous guns, the ones that could pump shells the weight of Volkswagens toward enemy targets. But many who gathered for a glimpse of history didn't see the ship as it is today, with millions required for restoration and an uncertain future as a tourist attraction in either Camden or Bayonne.

Instead, as they squinted into the sun at Red Bank Battlefield Park, they saw the ship as a window on their own youth, when, in danger and at war, they first realized they were capable of bravery.

"You become a man overnight," Henry Sanchez said of his military service. He remembered his revulsion during World War II when, at the tender age of 17, he pushed his way through dead bodies floating in the water to reach Normandy Beach in France.

Sanchez helped remove the wounded from the battlefield four hours after American troops landed in France in 1944.

Children should know the true history of war and their country, he said.

"It's God's gift that the New Jersey comes home on Veterans Day," said Sanchez, now 72 and retired in Bayonne. He admired with pride the throngs of people who turned out on the holiday to welcome the battleship. Sanchez planted the flag of the City of Bayonne on the Delaware River's shore, to demonstrate where he thought the Navy should send the ship.

Nearby, 5-year-old Kristina Shurig of Westville found a shady patch of grass on a hill rising above the choppy waves of the river.

The massive gray ship approached from the south, its big guns visible in the hazy November sunshine.

"Isn't it scary?" she asked.

"No, it's just cool," said her neighbor, Tim McCoy, 10, as he slurped a ginger ale. For as far as the eye could see, people lined the banks of the Delaware, three and four deep, straining to see the ship. National Park Police estimated the crowd at 8,000 to 10,000.

Some people sat in lawn chairs along the water's edge. Others huddled under blankets in wheelchairs. Families spread out picnic lunches on the beautifully maintained expanses of grass in the Revolutionary War park. Near a television news truck, two dozen children played a spirited game of tackle football. As the battleship approached, children boosted each other into sycamore trees to get a better view.

From Barnegat, scuba diver Tom Fagan brought his son, Colin, 9, to witness the battleship's journey home.

"On the one hand, it's a machine of destruction, and I'm a pacifist by nature," said the elder Fagan. "On the other hand, they don't make ships like this any more." During the summer, he and his scuba-diving friends explore ships sunk by German submarines off the Jersey Coast.

As the Pitman Hobo Band played "Anchors Aweigh," James Meehan, 58, of Edison, said, "We're here as a tribute. If it weren't for people who served on the Battleship New Jersey, and veterans in general, we probably wouldn't have a country today."

But for former Morristown resident Peter Ubertaccio, 76, the work aboard the ship wasn't heroic. It was routine.

"We were five decks below" the surface of the ship, he said, working in rooms stocked with 2,700-pound shells. His job was to help hoist the shells upright, where crews on upper decks would load them into the ship's enormous guns.

"Sometimes, we didn't know what island we were bombarding until it was over," he said. In September, he saw the ship in Bremerton, Wash., before it began its lengthy journey down the West Coast, through the Panama Canal and then up the Atlantic Coast to Philadelphia.

Deep below the ship's deck, he felt secure.

His job in later life, serving 26 years as a police officer in Morristown, "was much more dangerous."

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