Built to last

My father was 24 when the U.S. entered World War II, but he wasn’t destined for battlefield glory. Nevertheless, there’s a lasting tribute to his service to our country during the war. It’s docked in Camden and beginning May 21, you’ll be able to visit it for free, thanks to our Museum Pass program. It’s the Battleship New Jersey.

Though my father was eager to serve his country, when he showed up at the draft board, he ended up being part of the 30 percent of draftees ruled 4-F; in his case, his physical impairment was hearing loss. We think of battlefields as noisy places where hearing wouldn’t be much of a factor, but the 4-F draft exemption for hearing dates to the Civil War. You’ll remember that the George Bailey character in “It’s a Wonderful Life” was 4-F for hearing loss. (Coincidentally, my father’s name was George.)

While it disqualified him for military service, my father’s hearing loss did not prevent him from contributing to the war effort. He worked at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, the oldest military shipbuilding facility in the U.S. He worked on several military ships, but had a fondness for the New Jersey, since he was there the day she launched, Dec. 7, 1942, a year to day after the Pearl Harbor attack. This photo, courtesy of the Library of Congress, captures the moment.

With the exception of the fictional Rosie the Riveter, those who worked on the homefront during the war are barely remembered, and for a few years after the soliders came home my father remained a YardBird, the local sobriquet for Navy Yard workers. The New Jersey stuck around much longer, sailing the world over before being decommissioned in 1991.

While his service wasn’t celebrated at the time, it was, in a small way, a few months before his death in 2005. His namesake grandson strode with pride onto the New Jersey and declared to the tour guide, “My grandfather built this ship.”

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