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South Jersey

Monday, December 7, 1998

Efforts renewed in fight for ship

Gannett News Service

As Japanese 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 Jersey.

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 site.

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 battleship.

"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 in infamy."

"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 Harbor attack.

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."

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