Governor Whitman's Panama Canal Ceremony Remarks

Balboa, Panama - October 17, 1999

Thank you General Glazer, and thank you, ladies and gentlemen.  It is truly an awe inspiring honor to be here today to pay tribute to the "Big J," the Battleship New Jersey, and to wish her well as she begins the final leg of her 6,000 mile journey home.

It is also a pleasure to help salute the Panama Canal and the men and women who, for most of this century, have made this engineering marvel a vital part of world commerce and, in times of war, our national defense.

On behalf of the people of New Jersey, I want to begin by extending well-earned thanks to some of the people who have made this final journey of the "Big J possible.

Mr. Paul Schneider and the men and women of the U.S. Navy have worked long and hard with our Department of Military and Veterans' Affairs to make today possible.  Thank you, Mr. Schneider.

Captain Ogaard and the crew of the Sea Victory are doing a magnificent job in bringing the New Jersey home.  We've enjoyed following your progress as reported by Bob Wernet on the Battleship's web site.   Thank you, Captain Ogaard and all the good people of Crowley Marine.

Louis Caldera, Chair of the Panama Canal Commission and Secretary of the Army, has extended us every courtesy in arranging the New Jersey's passage through the Canal, with just inches to spare.  Thank you, sir, for all your efforts.

Ambassador Louis Ferro and the staff of the United States Embassy in Panama have worked with their usual skill to smooth the way.  Thank you, Mr. Ambassador.

Our Congressional delegation has been united in its support for bringing the "Big J" home, so I want to thank Senator Lautenberg and Congressman Frelinghuysen, who are here today representing the delegation, for all the hard work you and your colleagues in Washington did.

The Panamanian government has also been enormously helpful in making the arrangements for this historic occasion.  To our friends here in Panama, muchas gracias.

And of course, I want to express the appreciation of all the people of New Jersey to the members of the Battleship New Jersey Commission and its chair, Assemblyman Joe Azzolina.

For the better part of twenty years, the Commission has been working to bring this great ship home, once she was ready to retire.  Their faithful, steadfast service recalls the immortal words of Captain James Lawrence: "Don't give up the ship!"  They never have, and that's why we're here today.

Fifty-five years ago, the Battleship New Jersey made her maiden passage through the Panama Canal, bound for duty with the U.S. Fifth Fleet in the South Pacific.  Filled with more than 3,000 of the finest young men America had to offer, this magnificent ship was embarking on a career that would surpass that of any other Battleship in the history of the United States Navy.

The world was at war on the January day that the Big J first entered the Canal.  The terrors of tyranny, both in the Pacific and in Europe, were seeking to destroy the forces of freedom.  The men who stood at the rails of this ship, watching the lush, green landscape go by, did not know whether they would ever again lay eyes on a tranquil, peaceful land.

Again in 1951, then again in 1968, and yet again in 1983, this majestic warrior and her gallant crew would transit the Canal in answer to the cry of battle, steaming to provide Firepower for Freedom off Korea, then Vietnam, and then Lebanon.

Over the years, the New Jersey distinguished herself as no other.  The most decorated Battleship in Naval history, she earned 16 Battle Stars and numerous achievement awards in four wars over a span of four decades.   Her effectiveness in war helped build a legacy of peace.

And now, like a valiant, victorious warrior returning from battle, the USS New Jersey prepares to make her last passage through the Canal, on her final journey home, in a world blessed by the bounty of a peace she helped secure.

Today, no men line the "Big J's" rails.   Her bridge is empty, her billets unoccupied, her engines are silent, her guns will roar no more.

Yet as I walked across her sleeping deck just a few minutes ago, I could feel the presence, the living presence, of the thousands of men who, over the years, served on this ship with honor, courage, and commitment.

They put aside self for country.  They sailed to distant lands, to places their friends and family back home would have trouble finding on a map, in answer to their nation's call.  And they have left a legacy as proud and as brave as the ship on which they served.

To all those who served on the "Big J" - those who are here today and those who are with us in spirit - I offer you the abiding gratitude of the people of New Jersey.

So we gather today, at the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal, to salute this gallant warrior.  And we would be remiss if we did not also pause to salute the proud history of the Canal.  For as the esteemed historian David McCullough wrote, "The creation of the Panama Canal was far more than a vast, unprecedented feat of engineering.  It was a profoundly important historic event and a sweeping human drama not unlike that of war."

When construction on the Canal began on May 4, 1904, the eventual success of America's effort to link the two great oceans across the Isthmus of Panama was by no means assured.  The challenges were enormous.  Previous efforts had failed miserably.  The economic, engineering, political, and geographic obstacles were daunting.

But less than ten years later, the Canal was finished and the first complete passage from sea to shining sea was accomplished.  And today, some 85 years later, the Canal remains a true marvel of engineering, a living monument to the vision of those who conceived it, the sweat and toil of those who built it, and the dedication of those who have operated it.

Tomorrow, the "Big J" begins her tenth and final transit through the Canal.  And Just as this passage closes a chapter in the history of the Canal, another chapter will soon be opening.  At noon, on December 31st, the United States will transfer authority for the Canal to the Republic of Panama.

There was a time in the memory of most of you here today when transferring control of the Canal away from the United States was unthinkable.   Indeed, when President Carter sent the Panama Canal Treaty to the United States Senate, ratification was far from certain.

But today, the fears and concerns that surrounded that decision have faded.  The world is a different place.  The conflict and tension which, for so much of this century, seemed to leave us teetering on the brink of war, have yielded to a new sense of security for the forces of peace and freedom.

The achievement of this security would not have been possible without the contribution of the great ship which now lies peacefully behind me, and of all those who served on her.  All those who treasure freedom and cherish peace must honor their service and their sacrifice.

So we are bringing this ship home to her namesake, where she will be returned to the fullness of her glory for all to see.  By so doing, we will also ensure that her role in moving the world away from the desolation of war to the tranquility of peace will never be forgotten.

Smooth sailing, "Big J."  We look forward to welcoming you home.

Thank you.

 
 

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Line Drawing of Big J

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