Battleship back in home waters

USS New Jersey: 'I urge you to remember the battles she fought and why and the heroes who manned her and why,' admiral says on homecoming.

November 18, 1999|By Terry Bitman | Terry Bitman,Knight Ridder/Tribune

PHILADELPHIA -- Finally, their ship has come in. After nearly a day of tumultuous cheering by thousands of onlookers, stirring multigun salutes, enthusiastic flag-waving, and the poignant recalling of indelible wartime memories, the USS New Jersey has returned to its place of birth.

The battle-scarred hero of three wars arrived last week at the former Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, where the 857-foot battleship was built nearly 57 years ago. and began the not-so-easy task of backing into its docking space.

Across the Delaware River, in National Park, N.J., thousands stood on the shores watching from perhaps the best vantage point available to the public. A Gloucester County Parks spokesman estimated the crowds, which had formed early in the day, at 8,000-10,000.

The long-anticipated arrival of the New Jersey this month concluded a sojourn from mothballs in Bremerton, Wash. that began on Sept. 12 and took the ship on a 6,500-mile trip in tow down the Pacific coast, through the Panama Canal and up the Atlantic.

All day, the crowds were large and fervent, as the New Jersey slowly moved up the Delaware River from the bay.

Thousands of spectators

In Penns Grove, N.J., spectators came by the thousands to a windswept waterfront and watched one New Jersey icon pass as another sang.

As the ship passed triumphantly under the Delaware Memorial Bridge, Frank Sinatra's voice crooned in the background. Never mind the song was "Fly Me to the Moon" and not something more appropriate from Sinatra's wartime nautical musical, "Anchors Aweigh."

It was New Jersey meeting New Jersey.

The crowd there, as elsewhere on Veterans Day, consisted of many who had served their country and who proudly wore VFW and American Legion caps.

They were joined by schoolchildren, including, at Penns Grove, several from a class that had studied the New Jersey's storied history, and by lots of just curious folks who wanted to be able to say they were there the day the New Jersey came home.

One veteran watching the New Jersey pass in Penns Grove said he drove from Ohio to see the ship on which he once served. Another said he had driven from Florida. Several referred to the ship as an old friend. Many had tears in their eyes.

As the New Jersey approached, passing under the Delaware Memorial Bridge, the crowd cheered. As it went by, they stood quietly in respect.

Then came a 19-gun salute, more Sinatra music, and even louder cheers.

"As the New Jersey passes by us today," the crowd was told by Adm. William A. Retz, commander of the Philadelphia Naval Base, "I urge you to remember the battles she fought and why, and the heroes who manned her and why."

The temperatures rose as the ship moved north and the festive atmosphere continued on both sides of the river.

'It is so awesome'

As the battleship passed Market Square Memorial Park in Marcus Hook, the sun suddenly broke through and some 1,500 gazed in awe.

"The whole experience is thrilling," said Harold Gnau, 62, of the Reading, who served on the New Jersey during the Korean War and who watched his ship come in with his daughter and grandaughter. "I can't explain it. ... It is so awesome to see the ship again."

The New Jersey, a veteran of World War II, Korea and Vietnam, sailed into Delaware Bay late in the afternoon for the 100-mile slow procession up the river to Philadelphia, where it will remain until a decision is made on which New Jersey city -- Camden or Bayonne -- gets permanent custody of what will become a floating museum. A decision is expected around the first of the year.

Its return came just a few weeks short of the 57th anniversary of the day it was launched into the Delaware -- Dec. 7, 1942, a year to the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor that propelled the United States into World War II.

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