In 1982, the New Jersey was towed from Puget Sound Navy Yard to Long Beach Naval Shipyards for her modernization. She was given an exceptionally high priority and was recommissioned on October 28, 1982.
The New Jersey was commissioned by one of her greatest fans, President Ronald Reagan, who said the Navy gala reminded him of a film he acted in called “Operation Hellcat.” He said he had to confess that while he was still in love with his leading lady, Nancy, he was developing a “great respect for the leading lady in these ceremonies. She’s gray, she’s had her face lifted, but she’s still in the prime of her life, a gallant lady: the New Jersey.” It was the first time a President had commissioned a ship in over 40 years.
Secretary of the Navy John Lehman was also there to support the 514th of his “600 ship Navy.” After much congressional debate, New Jersey had been the first of the Iowa’s to be recommissioned for a price of $326 million, on time and far under budget – in fact, for about the price of a new frigate.
The battleship was inundated with requests to serve by over 4,000 volunteers. Only 1,500 men were chosen, 300 in critical ratings: a far cry from the 2,500 men who served in World War II.
The battleship was reconditioned with capabilities for carrying 32 Tomahawk missiles: the most advanced of naval missiles and four times the number carried by any ship at that time. She also carried 16 Harpoon anti-surface missiles and four Vulcan-Phalanx close-in “gattling-gun” weapons for defense against incoming aircraft or missiles; a modern electronic countermeasure system; a cruiser-style communication system; aviation facilities and operating stations for SH-60B helicopters; updated air and surface radar; and conversion of the fuel plant to burn Navy distillate fuel.
New Jersey was on a three-month shakedown cruise off Southern California when there were political flare-ups in Central America that demanded her attention. Then, the Beirut crisis began. She transited the Panama Canal, having been designed to do so with a clearance of approximately two feet. The battleship remained on station with the Sixth Fleet for six more months in support of U.S. Marines in the Multi-National Defense Force. On three occasions, she fired her 16-inch guns in defense. On February 8, 1984, she fired 288 rounds into the surrounding hills to effectively knock out Syrian anti-aircraft missile sites. The accuracy of the guns was questioned by some critics, but the mission was clearly accomplished. Toward the end, volunteers began relieving many of the crewmembers, but in May, 1984, eleven months after departure, New Jersey returned home.
New Jersey proved herself during that deployment. Her presence in tandem with aircraft carrier groups was significant in that it couldn’t be countered.
Her rounds were not flown in by vulnerable pilots in expensive jet aircraft, and a one ton bullet could hardly be deterred from its target. Had the Syrians had the capability, conventional countermeasures against the ship would meet extreme resistance, and if not shot down, they would meet with armor over a foot thick in many places. It was generally thought that an Exocet missile of the type that split the HMS Sheffield during the Falklands War, would merely bounce off the battleship armor, causing the ship to conduct “sweepers.” While this may seem far-fetched, it does make a significant point: short of a direct nuclear hit, a battleship is likely to sustain relatively insignificant damage and keep operating. The history of battleships supports this.
Battleship Battle Group
New Jersey‘s next deployment was to be significant for another reason. It would be the first deployment of a battleship group since the Korean War.
As centerpiece of the battle group, New Jersey and her escorts operated from Hawaii to Thailand as the only United States naval presence in that area from May to October, 1986, relieving a portion of the much-strained carrier commitment.
The battleship battle group included anti-air and anti-submarine warfare capable cruisers, destroyers, frigates, and support ships. It was not intended to replace an aircraft carrier group. However, in areas of lesser enemy air and submarine threat, it complemented the carriers with the great and unique fire power of its missiles and the 16-inch guns. As a result of New Jersey‘s deployment, the battleship battle group concept and the battleship modernization program were validated.
After an extensive yard period, beginning July 9, 1988, the next cruise was a memorable one for the crew. New Jersey performed as part of a surface action group, a small group of the battleship and two escorts, which could operate independently with air cover offered by a nearby carrier or land base.
New Jersey also staged off the coast of Korea prior to the Olympic games and spent two months in Australia during that nation’s bicentennial as the naval centerpiece of the festivities.
Shortly before the last New Jersey cruise was to get underway, there was an explosion in the center gun of turret two on sister ship USS Iowa, killing 47 sailors. A moratorium on the guns followed and the 16-inchers lay silent while an investigation took place. Many critics began to speculate there was something wrong with the guns. But after lengthy testing, New Jersey was allowed to fire again.
The last cruise of New Jersey included highlights as New Jersey flexed her muscle in several applications. First was her participation in PacEx ’89, the largest peacetime naval operation since the World War II era. Throughout the rest of the cruise, New Jersey was the centerpiece of battle groups or surface action groups, exercising the battleship’s versatility and flexibility. New Jersey cruised through the India Ocean and was the first to enter and operate in the Persian Gulf. On her return, she hosted the Commander in Chief, Pacific Fleet, change of command onboard. She returned February 25, 1990.
The New Jersey was decommissioned on February 8,1991, at Bremerton, Washington, where she was mothballed. She was stricken from the Navy List on February 12,1995, but was ordered reinstated under Bill 1024 Section 1011 by an order of Congress, as a mobilization asset. This order was carried out in February of 1998. She was again stricken from the list on January 4, 1999.
The New Jersey left Bremerton, Washington, on September 12, 1999, on her way to temporary mooring at the Philadelphia Naval Yard, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, a 61-day trip of about 5800 miles. On October 18, 1999, the New Jersey entered the Panama Canal for her tenth and final passage through the canal. With just seven inches clearance, it was a tricky passage through the 110-foot locks on her two-day passage to the Atlantic Ocean. Among the more than 160 visitors from New Jersey was New Jersey Governor Christie Whitman. While crossing the Gulf of Mexico, the tug Sea Victory blew an engine, delaying the New Jersey‘s arrival in Philadelphia. The New Jersey was connected to the Sea Victory with a 2700-foot long, 2-3/4 inch line.
On Veterans Day, November 11, 1999, the New Jersey sailed up the Delaware River under the escort of the United States Coast Guard cutter Mako, while over 25,000 admirers lined the banks of the river or sailed out to greet her. The 97-year-old tug Jupiter, who helped launch the New Jersey in 1942, was there to greet her. (When she was launched in 1942, she made such a wave that spectators on the New Jersey side of the Delaware River were drenched.) She passed under the Delaware Memorial Bridge at about 10:00 am, and was moored at Pier 4, alongside the aircraft carrier America, at the Philadelphia Navy Yard by 3:00 p.m. The estimated cost of the move from Bremerton, Washington, was about $2M, paid by the state.
On January 20, 2000, the Unites States Navy announced they had selected the City of Camden, New Jersey, as the final destination for the New Jersey. Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig signed a donation contract officially transferring the New Jersey to the Home Port Alliance, Camden, NJ. A battle of sorts had been brewing between North Jersey politicians, who wanted the ship to be berthed in Bayone, near New York City, and a South Jersey coalition called the Home Port Alliance for the USS New Jersey, headed by retired USN Capt. David McGuigan.
On July 25, the top 35 feet of the main mast, and parts of several smaller masts were cut off to permit the New Jersey to pass under the Walt Whitman Bridge. On July 27, the ship was towed from the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard to the Beckett Street Terminal on the Camden waterfront. On Tuesday, August 1, retired General Norman Schwartzkopf addressed the delegates of the Republican National Convention aboard the deck of the New Jersey.
On August 15, the ship was moved a short distance down river to the South Jersey Port Corporation’s Pier 1 at the Broadway Terminal in Camden, where it is berthed today. There, she is undergoing renovations and improvements to make her ready for the public. Starting this spring a new pier will be constructed adjacent to the Tweeter Center, just south of the New Jersey State Aquarium, and opposite Philadelphia’s Penns Landing. By September 2, 2001, she will be moved to her final berth along the Camden Waterfront, to be opened as a museum ship and memorial to those who served on the “Big J.”
In October 2001 the ship was moved to its final stop near the Tweeter Center on the Camden Waterfront. She opened to the public on Oct 14, 2001 as a museum and is open daily to visitors. Restoration on various areas continues and new tour routes are being opened to view areas of the ship. Many displays can be seen onboard showing the ships history and the story of her sailors. More information on the Battleship New Jersey Museum may be found at the official web site of the Battleship New Jersey Museum.
Portions contributed by Christopher Thell, Guy Derdall, and Peter Greene