N.J. gains rights to namesake warship

Navy signs over most decorated battleship .

August 17, 1999|By Joseph A. Gambardello | Joseph A. Gambardello,Knight Ridder / Tribune

TRENTON, N.J. -- The USS New Jersey now belongs to the state after which it is named.

At a ceremony Wednesday on the steps of the War Memorial in Trenton, Gov. Whitman signed a proclamation formally taking from the Navy the title to its most decorated battleship.

"With such a rich history, it seems only fitting that the New Jersey return home as a tribute to the thousands of New Jerseyans who fought bravely for their country," the governor said.

The title transfer cleared the way for the vessel, built during World War II, to be towed from the Navy's Puget Sound Shipyard in Bremerton, Wash., to the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard. It will stay there until the Navy decides whether its final berth will be in Camden or in Bayonne, the site recommended by the state Battleship Commission.

Todd Busch, manager of contract services for Crowley Marine Services, the Seattle firm that has a $2 million contract with the state to tow the warship, said the New Jersey would start its journey Sept. 12, after 60 days of preparation work.

After being towed through the Panama Canal, the ship, known by the designation BB-62, is expected to arrive in Philadelphia on Nov. 4, a month short of the 57th anniversary of its launching into the Delaware River.

The Navy is expected to announce early next year where the New Jersey, which also served in the Korean and Vietnam Wars, will be berthed. That decision, although not mentioned during the signing ceremony, was very much a presence among the officials, veterans and other interested parties gathered in the shade of the War Memorial portico, where a model of the battleship was on display.

It was evident even when Whitman handed out the signing pens. One went to Assemblyman Joseph Azzolina (R., Monmouth), the pro-Bayonne chairman of the Battleship Commission and a retired Navy captain, who said returning the battleship to New Jersey might be "the major achievement of my life." Another went to Assembly Minority Leader Joseph Doria (D., Hudson), who is mayor of Bayonne. And Whitman presented a third to State Sen. John J. Matheussen (R., Gloucester), co-founder of the Home Port Alliance, which is fighting to bring the ship to Camden.

Another alliance co-founder, Camden Mayor Milton Milan, and about 20 supporters wearing white T-shirts that advocated berthing the New Jersey in Camden, mingled among the crowd.

At a news conference afterward, Whitman maintained her neutrality on the home-port question and said she was "relieved" that the Solomonic decision was not hers but the Navy's.

She said that strong cases had been made for both cities, and that what mattered most was that wherever the ship ends up, it will be in New Jersey. She has budgeted $7 million for whatever site the Navy chooses.

Also attending the ceremony were friends Bob Walters and Tom Ihnken, who served together on the New Jersey in the 1950s.

They, too, are divided on the home-port question, and their positions are based as much on geography as emotions. Walters, a Camden supporter, lives in Moorestown, N.J. The pro-Bayonne Ihnken grew up on Staten Island and lives in Pompton Lakes in Passaic County.

"But," Walters said, catching the spirit of the day, "the main thing is that she's coming back to New Jersey."

Pub Date: 08/17/99

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