December 7, 1998 |
renewed in fight for ship
By CAROL COMEGNO
Gannett News Service
planes bombed Pearl Harbor in a sneak attack in 1941, workers
at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard already were hammering and
welding the steel for what would become the battleship USS New
She was launched Dec. 7, 1942 - the first
anniversary of the attack that led the United States into World
War II and a date purposely chosen by the Navy.
On the 57th anniversary of the attack and
56th birthday of the ship today, the nonprofit Homeport Alliance
of Camden is preparing an application to the Navy to bring the
ship home to the Delaware River as a floating museum and memorial.
The Navy recently announced a May 17 deadline
for accepting applications from any nonprofit group to locate
the ship in New Jersey, with the main competition expected to
come from the New Jersey Battleship Commission for a Bayonne
A Pearl Harbor memorial service will be held
today at 11:15 a.m. in the former shipyard, aboard the USS America,
a deactivated aircraft carrier. Home Port Alliance members hope
that one day a similar service can be held on New Jersey's namesake
"I would love to be able to have our
annual ceremony on the battleship New Jersey in about two years.
Nothing would make me happier," said Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J.,
who sponsors the annual memorial service and whose grandfather
worked at the shipyard.
He said the alliance is pursuing two strategies.
"First, we will submit the most forceful and compelling
application by May 17, and the second is to frankly encourage
the state commission to unite behind one application. New Jersey
would better be served to have one application - Camden,"
the congressman said.
Adm. Thomas Seigenthaler of Haddonfield, a
former Philadelphia Naval Shipyard commander now in charge of
preparing the application for the Camden site, said he is confident
it will have merit.
"It just doesn't make any sense to me
to take it to Bayonne. We have a freshwater river with developing
tourist attractions, and we have more of a historical connection
to the ship," he said.
He hopes the ship can be brought from its
berthing site in Bremerton, Wash., by next summer. The group
that wins the ship, however, must pay to tow it to the East Coast.
The alliance - made up of government officials,
labor unions and nonprofit agencies - is trying to raise money
beyond the $4.8 million already committed by the Camden County
Board of Freeholders and the federal empowerment zone board,
as well as several million dollars collected by the state through
the sale of commemorative license plates.
"The Navy will store it on the East Coast
at no charge to us until the turnover process is complete. It
could be either at Norfolk, Philadelphia or Newport, R.I.,"
the admiral said.
He said he would prefer to house the ship
for necessary repairs at the Navy's deactivated ships facility
next to the former Philadelphia shipyard. The ship would then
move to the Camden waterfront just south of the Blockbuster/Sony
Entertainment Centre and the New Jersey State Aquarium.
Former shipyard workers say the Pearl Harbor
attack spurred intense activity at the already busy shipyard.
"The U.S. foresaw that war was imminent
for us because the Japanese were invading everywhere and capturing
islands, but we never thought an attack on Pearl Harbor was possible,"
said retired shipfitter James Mutchler.
"We were already working eight-hour shifts
around the clock before Pearl Harbor. In January, we went to
10-hour shifts, and I worked from 4 p.m. to 2 a.m.," remembered
Mutchler, 82, of Runnemede.
Beginning in 1939, he said he worked on two
landing craft and two destroyer escorts and then the New Jersey,
its sister ship the Wisconsin, and two aircraft carriers.
He recalled where he was when he heard about
what President Roosevelt's called the "day that will live
"I was at a friend's house - Gustav Schulz
on Princess Avenue in Camden - having Sunday dinner. Everyone
was dumbfounded, shocked and horrified. Thousands of U.S. servicemen
had been killed."
At the shipyard, he said, the work force of
20,000 men and women more than doubled after Pearl Harbor.
"We were all working feverishly. There
was no playing around," he recalled.
Later, Mutchler learned that John Bangart
of Gloucester Township, a friend from Blackwood Junior High School,
was aboard the battleship Arizona that was sunk during the Pearl
Before Dec. 7, 1941, Mutchler said he saw
two or three Japanese cargo ships a day going down river loaded
with scrap iron en route to Japan. "Pearl Harbor stopped
that," he said.
Retired sheet metal worker John Borek of Winslow
said workers were very upset at the Pearl Harbor attack.
"Quite a few of the younger men left
the Navy yard to go into the service. Some went into the Air
Force and some went into the Navy," said Borek, 80, who
also worked at the yard during the war. "I thought the Japanese
had a lot of gall to do what they did. They were supposed to
come over to offer a peace deal and they doubled-crossed us."
Last week he said he went to see a show in
Cape May called I'll Be Home for Christmas. "That was the
name of the song that came out in 1941, but some of them never
came home that year."
Borek said part of the shipyard work force,
including himself, went to 12-hour shifts after Pearl Harbor
to work on the New Jersey.
"She was a beautiful ship inside. They
will never again make anything like her," said Borek. Like
Mutchler, he attended the ship's launch in 1942.
"When it hit the water, it made a tidal
wave that went all the way over to National Park on the Jersey
side of the Delaware," he said. "We had never launched
a ship so big, so this was not expected. It got away from the
tugs a bit and was headed straight for the opposite shore, but
somehow they finally were able to turn her."
Rowland Hoefle of Burlington City, president
of the Liberty Bell chapter of the National Pearl Harbor Survivors
Association, was in the Navy during the attack and searched the
burning harbor for survivors.
He thinks the New Jersey - the most decorated
ship in the Navy with 13 battle stars for World War II - should
be in Camden. "Why take her to North Jersey? The ship was
built down here and they've got enough stuff up there. New York
doesn't want it because they've got the carrier Intrepid up there,
and I think it would help the economy a little bit more down
here and maybe make Camden like the place it used to be."