Battleship's wartime pinup was a babe 5-month-old girl symbolized home

November 05, 1998|By ALBANY TIMES UNION

WILTON, N.Y. -- Harolyn Lawton's 54 years as a Navy pinup girl began as a joke entry in a contest. But it won the hearts of the men aboard the USS New Jersey in World War II.

The battleship held a contest for people to submit nominations to be the ship's official pinup. One entrant was Harolyn, who at the time was 5 months old.

"My grandmother heard about the contest. She sent it in just for a joke," said Lawton, now 54.

The 74 other entrants to be the battleship's sweetheart were leggy young women. None came close to challenging the cherubic photo of the smiling Harolyn on a flowered satin blanket.

Lawton, then Harolyn Meyer and living in Newark, N.J., received 555 votes out of 1,376 cast. Her closest grown-up competitor was overwhelmed, losing by a 4-1 margin.

"It was a real solid statement by the guys," Lawton said. "They said the baby reminded them of home. This was a much tighter tie to home than a 17- or 18-year-old high school girl."

The battleship is back in the news as it prepares to leave Washington state for its new home in New Jersey, where it will be a floating museum.

Russell Collins, a machinist second-class aboard the New Jersey, recalls 1943 contest.

"There were all sorts of pictures there. Everybody wanted his own sweetheart as a pinup girl," said Collins, 73, a native of Camden, N.J., who now lives in nearby Palmyra.

"Let's go for the baby. Everybody voted for her," Collins said in a telephone interview.

A letter from two sailors, signed simply Russo and Kristich, arrived at Harolyn's home in late 1943. She has preserved it among the newspaper clippings and officials photos from her pinup years.

"Whoever sent your picture might be playing a joke on your part, but you tell Mama, you are our baby pinup," the two sailors wrote on the thin paper reserved for wartime correspondence. "As the boys admire you every day, it brings back to them their loved ones they left behind. You are the greatest, littlest morale builder BTC that ever hit our eyes," they wrote.

At age 3, Lawton inspected the ranks of the 3,000 crew members aboard the New Jersey.

The wartime crew had a major impact on her life. It was a $3,200 savings bond that they purchased for Lawton that permitted her to attend college. Without the money, she wouldn't have been able to afford college.

Lawton's early connection to the World War II warship surfaced recently as battleship enthusiasts from both coasts fought over where the ship should be docked. New Jersey won and the ship is returning home from Bremerton, Wash., where it had been mothballed.

But several cities in New Jersey are still competing for the ship. The choices are Camden, across from the Philadelphia Navy Yard where Lawton's photo was displayed with all the other contestants 54 years ago, and Bayonne or Jersey City.

Collins is clear on his choice. "Right here in Camden we've got the berth all ready," he said.

Lawton takes a more diplomatic approach. She wants it in New Jersey, but at a site the public can easily visit.

Pub Date: 11/05/98

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