New Jersey gains in competition for battleship State hopes to convert namesake naval vessel into floating museum

July 01, 1998|By James Dao | James Dao,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - To devotees of naval history, America's great battleships are proud symbols of an era when hulking vessels could unnerve the most belligerent of enemies simply by bellying up to their coastlines, when global power was won at sea and diplomacy rested on the shoulders of admirals.

Those times may be gone, but the aura of power that still surrounds the huge Iowa-class battleships that helped win the Pacific war 50 years ago has placed them at the center of a new conflict: a nationwide competition among states that see the ships as potential gold mines for tourist dollars.

With the Navy preparing to give away at least one of its three Iowa-class battleships to make way for higher-technology weapons and ships, a dozen states, including New Jersey, have begun aggressive lobbying campaigns in Washington to acquire one of the 45,000-ton armor-plated behemoths. The states are hoping to convert the ships into naval museums like the Intrepid Sea-Air-Space Museum in New York, one of nine such big ship museums in the nation.

The battleship competition has led to the kind of fierce back-room wheeling and dealing that only Washington can produce, and for the moment, New Jersey seems to be outflanking its rivals.

In the coming weeks, the Senate is expected to pass legislation pushed by New Jersey's Democratic senators, Frank Lautenberg and Robert Torricelli, that would order the Navy to make the USS New Jersey available for donation. Since a nonprofit group from New Jersey is the leading applicant for the ship, Senate and Navy officials say, the measure would virtually ensure that the vessel goes to the state.

Bill passed in House

The House has already passed similar legislation. But a group in San Francisco has joined forces with a naval veterans' organization to bring another of the ships, the Iowa, to a pier near the Oakland Bay Bridge, where they would convert it into a museum and part-time emergency medical center during earthquakes. California's Democratic senators, Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, have said that they may try to block the New Jersey legislation and substitute a measure that would make the Iowa available for donation instead of the New Jersey.

Under current law, the Navy can give away only one of the Iowa-class ships and must keep the other two available for military action.

"This is a do-or-die effort for us," said Merylin Wong, the head of the California group, called the Historic Ships Memorial at Pacific Square in San Francisco.

The competitive fever has also spread to New Jersey, where anticipation of victory on Capitol Hill has prompted an intense rivalry among three cities to become home to the water-bound museum.

Camden wants the battleship for its redeveloped Delaware River waterfront, while Bayonne sees it as the anchor for new commercial development at a recently closed Navy base. But Jersey City asserts it has the most scenic spot of all: Liberty State Park, with its unbroken views of lower Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty.

Heart of the fight

Sen. John Warner, a Virginia Republican who was secretary of the Navy from 1972 to 1974 and is now chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Seapower, supported inserting the New Jersey provision into a Defense Department financing bill because, he said, the Iowa is in better condition than the New Jersey and so should stay in the Navy.

At the heart of the fight are the fastest, largest and deadliest battleships ever built in America, stretching about three football fields long, 887 feet, carrying crews of more than 1,500 and able to reach speeds greater than 33 knots.

But the hallmark of the ships is their 16-inch guns, capable of raining 1,900-pound shells on targets 23 miles away, though not with pinpoint accuracy. No matter: The blast impact of shells that weigh as much as small pachyderms means close is good enough.

Marine Corps officials have been the staunchest advocates of keeping all the Iowa-class battleships in the Navy. "The Navy has poured millions into finding a substitute for the battleships, but they have nothing that compares," said James Soper, a retired Marine Corps brigadier general. "There is a certain element of the Navy that says, 'If it isn't brand-new, it can't be good.' "

Commissioned in 1943, the New Jersey is the only one of the four Iowa-class ships to have served in four conflicts: World War II, where it participated in the assault on Iwo Jima and was a flagship for Adm. William Halsey Jr.; Korea; Vietnam, and, in 1983, Lebanon.

The ship was decommissioned in 1991 and is docked in Bremerton, Wash.

The other ships of its class are the Iowa, Wisconsin and Missouri. The Missouri, on whose deck the Japanese surrendered, is on its way to Hawaii to become a museum at Pearl Harbor.

Though the Wisconsin remains on the Navy's active register, Warner is pushing legislation to move it to a public dock in Norfolk, Va., where tourists would be allowed to inspect its top deck.

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