An important piece of firepower history from the Battleship New Jersey was returned to the warship Monday and remounted where it played a crucial role during World War II, shooting down Japanese suicide bomber attacks.
Under gray skies and a light rain, the 40mm quadruple antiaircraft gun was installed on the warship, which is moored as a museum and memorial on the Camden waterfront. A technical glitch forced crews to scrap plans to symbolically fire the weapon, facing across the Delaware River.
"Abandon ship," one onlooker quipped.
It was nevertheless a joyous homecoming, as officials prepared to mark the battleship's 75th anniversary next month. The New Jersey was built at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard and launched on Dec. 7, 1942, one year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.
"We're glad to have it back here," Philip P. Rowan, executive director of the Home Port Alliance for the USS New Jersey Inc., which operates the battleship, said as he stood on the deck, which stretches the length of three football fields, and watched crews put the final touches on the installation .
Equipped with an arsenal of firepower, the warship steamed with American fleets in the South Pacific during World War II, firing rounds to shoot down incoming enemy aircraft. Years later, it would play a similar role during the Korean War.
The whereabouts of only one of the 20 "Quad 40" Bofors gun mounts, an important part of the history of the most decorated battleship in U.S. history, was known. They were removed from the ship when it was retrofitted at the Navy Yard in the 1960s for service in Vietnam because they had become obsolete.
Paul Niessner, 74, a retired Navy Yard worker who removed the Quad 40s in October and November 1967, was among about a dozen onlookers who watched Monday's installation. Sitting on a scooter, he reached out to touch the relic gun.
"I wanted to be here to touch it," said Niessner, of Pennsauken, a Navy veteran. "Since I was the one who removed it, I thought I would be the one to accept it after 50 years."
The Quad 40, which was mounted Monday, had been displayed for years on a concrete pedestal at the Broad Street entrance to the Navy Yard. The 24,000-pound gun was removed from its mount in July and shipped to a North Jersey restoration company that specializes in antiques.
The Quad 40 was transported from Basking Ridge by a tractor-trailer to Camden, where it was unloaded on a barge crane. The Weeks Marine barge was then towed under the Ben Franklin Bridge by a tug operated by Hays Tug & Launch Services to the battleship. Once at the ship, the crane lowered two "spuds" to the bottom of the Delaware River to steady the barge platform. The crane then lifted the Quad 40 up 26 feet from the river to the deck of the ship on the port side.
"We like to preserve history," said Gary Mahan, 69, president of the Mahan Collection and Museum in Basking Ridge. "W'ere hopeful that young people will have an opportunity to see how it was done at one time."
The Quad 40 will be fired soon, said Clark Perks, the battleship's development director. A starboard 40mm saluting gun was fired Monday in honor of the return of the Quad 40 and in honor of the veterans who helped get it back.
Officials believe the other Quad 40s were scrapped over the years and worry that other warship artifacts may be lost forever unless they move quickly to acquire them.
Battleship officials have raised about $125,000 toward a $200,000 fund-raising campaign started last spring to obtain the Quad 40 and three other artifacts — the legendary 16-inch guns that could fire at a target from miles away. They also hope to reclaim other artifacts and restore the storied warship, adding a new coat of gray paint and replacing the teak decks.
The Navy Yard agreed to give the battleship the Quad 40 to display in Camden. One of the 16-inch guns will be displayed on the New Jersey, one will be given to the Navy Yard, and the remaining one will go to Mahan, who collects trucks and historic vehicles. Currently, the 16-inch guns are at the Navy's St. Juliens Creek Annex in Chesapeake, Va.
Known as the "Big J, " the battleship also saw duty in Vietnam and the Mideast before it was decommissioned in 1991. It was moved to the Camden waterfront in 2000 and opened to public tours in 2001, and has had more than one million visitors. Today, it draws about 88,000 visitors a year, mainly local schoolchildren.
Officials hope to have one of the three original Turret One 16-inch guns at the New Jersey by December for the anniversary celebration. The 66-foot-long guns pummeled rounds at Iwo Jima and Okinawa. The gun barrels, which weigh about 125 tons each, would be transported by either barge or train, Rowan said.
They also have their sights on one day acquiring the remaining pieces of the warship's 109-piece Tiffany silver collection. The ship has 45 pieces on display in the captain's in-port cabin and the remaining pieces are on display at Drumthwacket, the New Jersey governor's residence in Princeton. The complete set is valued at $1.4 million and is owned by the Navy.