A behind-the-scenes campaign to relocate the U.S. Navy’s most decorated war ship from Camden to Jersey City is now underway, a campaign that threatens to revive an old tug of war between north and south Jersey.
A decade has passed since the Battleship USS New Jersey sailed around the U.S. and landed in Camden, after Jersey City, Bayonne, and Camden waged a bitter battle over where the ship would be docked. At the time, many were surprised that Camden won out over Jersey City and Bayonne. But it was assumed the ship, which was turned into a museum, would help vitalize Camden’s waterfront and feed off of tourism in Philadelphia.
That hasn’t happened. Disappointing tourism along Camden’s Delaware River waterfront, according to some sources, has made the USS New Jersey a forgotten relic tucked behind the city’s underutilized aquarium.
“This is a national treasure. It’s been given its best shot in Camden,” said one source. “But it simply isn’t viable [as a tourist attraction] where it is now.”
The USS New Jersey Battleship Foundation hopes to raise about $15 million from private sources to relocate the ship in 2013.
Old idea resurfaces
The move to relocate this historic war ship is being spearheaded by the USS New Jersey Battleship Foundation, various veterans groups, and groups of volunteers who believe the ship – which is now operating as a museum in Camden – is not sustainable in its current location.
They argue the battleship, which could be a major tourist attraction, is not getting the foot traffic it should, largely because the Delaware River waterfront and Camden are not attractive destinations for visitors.
“After 10 years and $42 million in state and other aid, that location has failed to sustain the New Jersey,” the foundation’s executive director, vice president, and secretary write in a letter addressed to USS New Jersey supporters. “The battleship should be moved to Liberty State Park where attendance revenue will forever support its self-sufficient operation and create hundreds of new jobs.”
In their new vision for the battleship, they see it as part of a “freedom trilogy” in the New York Harbor that will eventually include the USS New Jersey, the Statue of Liberty, and 1 World Trade Center, formerly known as the Freedom Tower, in lower Manhattan.
Representatives from the USS New Jersey Battleship Foundation have been meeting with key political leaders in Hudson County and Trenton to get their support for the move. Thus far, Hudson County Executive Thomas DeGise and Jersey City Mayor Jerramiah T. Healy are on board.
Earlier this month, on Jan. 13, DeGise sent a letter of support to Gov. Christopher Christie which stated, in part: “I am writing to express my support for the [foundation’s] ‘Complete the Mission Campaign’ to bring this famed vessel here for permanent mooring beside Liberty State Park in Jersey City…The ship would instantly enjoy new visibility and profitability as an exciting point of destination for more than 50 million people who visit New York City annually. The foundation, with our support, seeks to raise the funds necessary to relocate, renovate, and ready a proper final berth for the Battleship New Jersey anchored off Liberty State Park, within a metropolitan area rich with tourism, and marketing opportunities.”
Healy plans to voice his support soon, according to his spokesperson.
“The mayor has met with representatives of the organization,” said city spokeswoman Jennifer Morrill. “The mayor supports the concept. However, the city cannot commit financial resources. The mayor will send a letter of support to the governor.”
In addition to DeGise and Healy, foundation representatives have also met with the governor’s staff and have reached out to State Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Jersey City).
One source recently said the Battleship Foundation is already working with the fundraising organization that helped raise millions for the World Trade Center Memorial, the Martin Luther King Memorial, and the World War II Memorial. They hope to raise about $15 million from private sources to relocate the Battleship New Jersey in 2013.
‘The Big J’
One of the four Iowa class ships that have been taken out of active duty, the Battleship USS New Jersey served in World War II, the Korean conflict, Vietnam, and in the Persian Gulf during Operation Desert Storm and the 1990 Operation Desert Shield. Like the Battleship New Jersey, three other Iowa class ships – the Battleship Missouri, the Illinois, and the Kentucky – have also been taken out of active duty by the Navy. The Navy keeps two other ships in this class, the Battleship Iowa and the Battleship Wisconsin, in its reserve fleet.
The four that have been permanently decommissioned now operate as museums at various sites across the country.
Built in the early 1940s, the Iowa class ships were at the time considered to be state-of the-art vessels for their speed and ability to provide cover for U.S. aircraft carriers, according to the Navy’s web site. Although other ships were built during this same period and were also used during World War II, notably the Montana class warships, the Iowa class ships saw more years of service and are considered by some sources to be among the Navy’s best warship designs.
The Big J, as the Battleship New Jersey was nicknamed, was built in the Philadelphia Naval Yard and was commissioned for duty in 1943. During its years of service the New Jersey received nine battle stars for World War II, four for the conflict in Korea, three Campaign Stars for its service in the Persian Gulf, and two stars for the Vietnam War. The Battleship New Jersey is the most decorated ship in U.S. Navy history.
At least 55,000 Navy vets served aboard the Battleship New Jersey, according to the Battleship New Jersey museum.
Location, location, location – or politics?
When the Navy decommissioned the Battleship New Jersey for the last time in 1991, the vessel sat for years in Bremerton, Wash., until the USS New Jersey Battleship Foundation, with the help of veterans and volunteers in New Jersey, launched an effort to “bring her home.” That is, to bring the Battleship New Jersey home to her namesake.
When the Navy began looking for suitable sites in New Jersey to dock the decorated war ship, three sites emerged as frontrunners: Jersey City’s Liberty State Park, the Military Ocean Terminal in Bayonne, and the Delaware River waterfront in Camden, which is across the harbor from the Philadelphia Navy Yard where the ship was built.
In 2000, Navy Secretary Richard Danzig announced that the Battleship New Jersey would be donated to the Home Port Alliance and berthed in Camden. At the time the Navy insisted that Camden was selected because the city had promised to create a number of exhibits in on its waterfront that would tie in to the ship’s history. Other infrastructural developments that could have increased local tourism were also planned at the time, although it’s unclear whether they ever materialized.
But other sources claim politics played a much bigger role in the decision to dock the ship in Camden. These sources argue that the Democratic administration of President Bill Clinton selected Camden as a gift to former Philadelphia Mayor Ed Rendell, who at the time was chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
Whatever the reasons, the ship has not thrived in Camden, according to many sources.
In 2010, the museum laid off a dozen employees, according to local news reports, and cut back on its weekday hours. According to the museum’s web site, the battleship is currently closed for the entire month of January and won’t reopen for tours until Feb. 3.
“This is unheard of,” said one source. “For this museum to be closed for an entire month shows you this museum simply isn’t attracting enough people where it is now.”
When it does reopen, the battleship will again offer regular tours to the public – but only on weekends, or by appointment during the week for large groups.
The USS New Jersey Battleship Foundation is now making the case that this valuable naval asset would be better served in a region of the state that sees more tourism. Yet, any push to relocate the battleship is sure to anger Camden and Philadelphia, which see the battleship as an anchor that brings tourism to the Delaware River waterfront, no matter how sparse.
For now, Camden’s Home Port Alliance holds a contract with the U.S. Navy to operate and manage the ship museum. Any decision to relocate the Battleship New Jersey would have to be made by the Naval Sea Systems Command, a division of the U.S. Navy.
E-mail E. Assata Wright at email@example.com.