For the first time in more than 60 years, a powerful gun first used during World War II rumbled Thursday from the rear of the Battleship New Jersey across the Delaware River, marking the 75th anniversary of the launch of the historic warship at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in 1942.
At a ceremony commemorating the launch and the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor by Japan, a Quad 40 antiaircraft gun was fired from the warship. The gun is an important piece of the ship's firepower history, playing a crucial role during World War II, shooting down kamikaze attacks.
After two WWII veterans tossed a wreath into the choppy Delaware, four rounds were fired from the Quad 40. The blasts reverberated and the smell of gunpowder, though not any shells, carried in the brisk wind.
"It looks like a brand-new weapon," said Philip P. Rowan, CEO and president of the Home Port Alliance for the USS New Jersey Inc., which operates the museum and memorial. The crowd of about 50 people gathered on deck applauded.
They scrapped plans to do the ceremonial line toss to the Tugboat Jupiter because the windy conditions prevented the tug from pulling close enough to the warship for the toss. The tugboat, which assisted the New Jersey when it was launched in 1942, stayed nearby on the river and sounded its horn after the gun firings.
The gun was fired at 2:16 p.m. Thursday, approximately the same time that the battleship was launched, a year after the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor that killed more than 2,400 and injured over 1,000. The United States declared war on Japan the next day.
"It brought the country together like never before," recalled Navy veteran Al Villalobos, 92, of Cherry Hill, who served active duty from 1943 to 1946. "A lot of people had to make a lot of sacrifices."
The USS New Jersey had a rocky debut. Launched as more than 20,000 people watched, the ship slid down the slipway at the Navy Yard, crossed the river, and then ran aground in Camden.
It later took on the vital mission of protecting U.S. aircraft carriers against kamikaze attacks. Equipped with its arsenal of antiaircraft guns, the warship steamed with American fleets in the South Pacific. It played a similar role during the Korean War.
During its heyday, the battleship was equipped with 20 of the Quad 40 Bofors gun mounts. But those were removed from the ship when it was retrofitted at the Navy Yard in the 1960s for service in Vietnam because the guns had become obsolete.
The whereabouts of only one of the Quad 40s was known. It was displayed 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, shipped to a North Jersey restoration company, and remounted on the battleship in November.
For John Windfelder, 68, of Willow Grove, Thursday's gun firing was a tribute to his father, John, a machinist who helped build the battleship. An Air Force veteran, the son volunteers at the ship.
"This is very touching for me. This day always gets me," said Windfelder, wiping away tears.
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. They are trying to raise $200,000 to obtain three other artifacts — the legendary 16-inch mammoth guns that could reach targets miles away.
Russell Collins, 92, of Palmyra, a member of the battleship's first crew, was happy to see at least one Quad 40 returned to the New Jersey. He saw duty in the engine room as an 18-year-old machinist's mate third class in 1943 and was assigned to 20mm guns.
"The only thing we fired before the war was a BB gun," Collins said with a laugh. "It was a whole new life."
Another Navy veteran who served during World War II, John Quinesso, 91, of Vineland, N.J., recalled pulling a radio transmission while working the midnight shift aboard a landing ship in Guam. The message from Pearl Harbor announced that the Japanese had surrendered.
In his excitement, Quinesso said, he rushed to inform the captain, violating military protocol of going through a superior officer.
" 'It had better be important. You just woke me up,' " Quinesso recalled the response from the captain.
Quinesso, a retired IRS agent, said "all hell broke loose" when the captain made the announcement and the sailors realized they would be heading home. Quinesso volunteers aboard the New Jersey once a week.
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.
Earlier Thursday, a squadron of T-6 Texan trainer propeller planes flew over the battleship to mark the anniversary of Pearl Harbor Day. Two Navy veterans who volunteer aboard the ship cast a memorial wreath into the Delaware. A bugler performed "Taps" during a brief ceremony.
"I do it in memory of the guys who didn't come back," said Joe Low, 86, of Haddon Township, one of the wreath tossers, who served in the Navy Reserve from 1952 to 1962 and spent time aboard the battleship. "I was lucky."