Ship draws old salts

CAMDEN, N.J. — CAMDEN, N.J. - Tony Altadonna, a retired RCA worker, is 78, the father of four and the grandfather of nine. You could say he is in his twilight years. Just don't let him hear you say it.

"I'm having a great time," said the Pennsauken man, who is keeping busy as a volunteer aboard the USS New Jersey.


"It's the best therapy," said Altadonna, who was a mechanic in the Army Air Forces during World War II. "I don't have to go the doctor's anymore."

The Home Port Alliance, the nonprofit group working to turn the New Jersey into a memorial museum on the Delaware River, plans to spend $20 million restoring the battleship and building its pier and shoreside complex.


But it is still banking on volunteers to do the sort of work that would be familiar to any sailor, or to help provide the expertise that will make a radio room or combat control center come alive.

A recent visit to the ship, berthed at the South Jersey Port Corp.'s Broadway Terminal, found Altadonna and about 30 other volunteers in a labor of love - scraping paint, making shelves, installing lights, often without the benefit of heat.

Some were old salts, but others, such as Altadonna, were former Army men.

All had time on their hands, and that mystical tie that links boys and men to such icons of the industrial age as warships and locomotives.

Two 1950s-era Army veterans - Lee Gray and Bill Fox, both of Cinnaminson - were making storage shelves in the New Jersey's wood shop, which Altadonna had restored to working order.

'The hardest part ... '

"I'm a carpenter, and in the winter I don't do anything, so I volunteer my services," Fox said. "The hardest part of the job is getting here through that traffic."

Gray, a cement worker, said he also was free during the winter. "This gives me something to do instead of sitting home and watching TV," he said.


For people such as Tony Pizzi, the New Jersey is a magnet.

"I'm a Navy nut, and I love old Navy stuff," said Pizzi, 60, who served on the Pocono, an amphibious command ship, in the early 1960s. A retired maintenance leader for Wyeth Laboratories, Pizzi said he made the 46-mile round trip from his Ardmore, Pa., home as many days as he could to do whatever he could on the battleship.

Pizzi also learned the other day of a deeper connection he had with the battleship. "This ship's keel was laid on Sept. 16, 1940. That's my birthday. ... This ship is as old as I am," he said.

Altadonna said he got involved partly because of the urging of his son-in-law, Frank Falcone, a retired Navy captain. He also is keen to note that other men of his generation have made a mission of the New Jersey.

Individuals and groups

The Home Port Alliance said about 500 individuals had signed up to work on the New Jersey, as had 30 groups, including Boy Scouts, Junior Navy ROTC units, veterans' organizations and a welders' union.


Joe Fillmyer, head of volunteer programs, said he had 15 to 30 volunteers working on the ship each day, and that more would be needed when the weather became warmer.

As they make their way through the ship's 1,000 or so compartments, workers stumble upon stored treasure, said Thomas U. Seigenthaler, a retired rear admiral who is the alliance's executive director.

He said a magazine for one of the New Jersey's 5-inch guns held a trove of the ship's blueprints and plaques the dreadnought collected on port calls around the world. Toolboxes and electronic equipment also have been uncovered.