The veteran I know best is my father.
Like a lot of men of his vintage, ca. 1924, he served during World War II; in the Pacific Theater aboard the U.S.S. Cheleb. The Cheleb was a supply ship that travelled alone and ferried ammo and other necessities of war to the fight; making runs back and forth between California and Hawaii and the Phillipines and other island chains for the duration.
After Japan surrendered on August 14, 1945, young Tommy Hooker (as he was known then) and his shipmates were sent to Tokyo Bay to support the U.S. occupation. One fine day the Bronx native and his buddies loaded the U.S.S. New Jersey, later to become the most decorated battleship in the history of the U.S. Navy; and that’s saying something.
My Dad’s memory is worse even than my own, so thankfully, his mother had saved about a dozen of his letters home from those years and in re-reading them 65 years later, we discovered his connection to the New Jersey, or BB 62.
My father gets a kick out of a connection we share with the New Jersey. See, I was part of NJN’s team of reporters that covered the New Jersey being towed up the Delaware on the last leg of its journey out of mothballs out in Bremerton, Washington, back in 1999. My Dad watched NJN’s team coverage as she was berthed at Camden and the connection was born for him. Built just down river at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in 1942, she had come home again to become the Battleship New Jersey Museum and Memorial http://www.battleshipnewjersey.org/.
I’d been on its decks several times since then doing stories for NJN News. Once several years ago I went down because the New Jersey’s state funding was being cut and I wanted to do a story on how the crew expected to survive. They’re struggling but they’re managing, with help from museum-goers and innovative thinking like overnight stays, event rentals, golf fundraising outings and the like.
One time while on deck, I called my Dad to tell him where I was and promised I’d get him down there from his Long Island home for a visit.
We finally made that a reality a couple of weeks ago and he loved it. Like so many surviving veterans who served in World War II and now even Korea and Vietnam, they’re getting on in years. My father’s not as agile as he once was — a guy in such good shape that he played golf (poorly, like his son!) and took to the ski slopes well into his 70’s now could really use a wheelchair. And that’s just what was offered to us by the helpful staff there. We took our tour that way and my father could relax and enjoy it.
His legs wouldn’t let him go below decks like he did as the 19- and 20-year-old Navy guy he was when he served. But the tour we got was one to remember; with her huge, 16-inch guns on full display and the great warship’s history — including “Big J’s” stint as the flagship of the Third Fleet in the Pacific Theater for the Elizabeth, N.J., native Admiral Bull Halsey — ably laid out for us by a volunteer docent named Tom who was himself a Navy veteran.
One engaging story Tom told our group involved U.S. troops getting fired upon from a hill above them and calling in cover fire from the New Jersey just offshore. Since its guns can fire accurately for 30 miles or so and providing cover fire was a big part of its job, the battleship was happy to oblige the request.
A short while later, the New Jersey brass radioed back to see whether the problem had been taken care of. “We can’t tell what’s happened to the enemy, sir” came the reply. “The hill is gone.”
It was like old home week for my Dad, surrounded by vets who’d served and who are volunteering their time aboard the U.S.S. New Jersey or paying their respects to the great ship that saved so many U.S. servicemen’s lives and protected our shores.
My father hadn’t laid eyes on her since Tokyo Bay, more than 60 years ago, but to him and the rest of us, she was just as beautiful a defender of freedom as ever.