Forty years ago this spring, the Navy recommissioned the battleship New Jersey (BB-62). Thousands of people gathered at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard to see the reincarnation of a ship that had been mothballed twice previously—after World War II and after the Korean War. Now another war was in progress, and she would be headed for Vietnam.
The weather was sunny, the ship was draped in bunting, and music filled the air. So also did optimism. Even as public opinion was turning ever more steadily against the war, the new crewmen of the New Jersey had the feeling that they could exert a positive influence on the outcome.
On that April day, the new commanding officer, Captain J. Edward Snyder Jr., used a simple gesture to express his feelings about the men he would take to war. During the ceremony, the podium for speakers faced the crowd of VIPs and other guests ashore. When his turn came to speak, the captain turned the podium 90 degrees to face the fantail, where the families of the crew were sitting. He spoke directly to them, saying that to him they were the important ones. It was a grandstand move, and for Snyder there would be many others in the months ahead. The crew clearly perceived his loyalty downward and rewarded him with its affection in return.
In World War II, Snyder was an ensign on board the battleship Pennsylvania (BB-38) during the 1944 Battle of Leyte Gulf. He was thus infused with the battleship traditions of the old Navy and brought some with him to the new. For instance, he added a bugler to the crew. He insisted on smartness in professional matters—ship handling, traditional courtesies, spit-and-polish cleanliness, and an accuracy of shore bombardment gunfire that rivaled the performance of the old battleships of World War II.
But he also had an informality that sometimes leaned to the zany. He decreed that crew members did not have to wear hats when they were topside, explaining breezily that they might just blow off when the guns fire. He himself had an unruly shock of dark hair that fell across his forehead when he wasn't wearing a cap. Some of the gun tubs—left empty when the 40-mm antiaircraft guns were removed during reactivation—still remained in place. Snyder directed that two of them in the superstructure be painted light blue inside, and he dubbed them swimming pools. Once he had a "pool" filled and then playfully donned his swimming trunks and rode an air mattress atop the water.
When the ship was under way, the captain expressed confidence that those on watch on the bridge would handle their jobs well, and he wandered throughout the ship to spend time with the crew. He might show up in the bakery, for instance, in the wee hours and compliment those who had the night shift in preparing the next day's meals. Each month he presided over cake cutting in the mess deck when crewmen with birthdays gathered to celebrate.
By the time the New Jersey got to the war zone in the autumn of 1968, her mission had changed dramatically. Most of North Vietnam was then off limits to bombing and shelling—part of an attempt to bring the North Vietnamese to the bargaining table. Within a month of the ship's arrival, the rest of North Vietnam moved to the restricted list as well. The new mission was to provide gunfire support for Soldiers and Marines ashore. Snyder liked to brag that whenever the New Jersey showed up, enemy troops backed off to be out of range of her guns.
Sometimes, though, the enemy was bold, and then the battleship used her guns in anger. One night calls for help came by radio from ashore; they specified precise positions where the projectiles should fall. The ship pumped out round after round. In the New Jersey's plotting room the spots gradually formed a circle. The Americans were surrounded and thus were saved by the ship from being obliterated. In another instance, the feedback came from Marine Major Ron Smaldone, in command of an outpost that was nearly overrun. His one-sentence testimonial to Snyder: "If it hadn't been for the New Jersey, they would have zapped our ass."
The following spring the ship returned to the States at the end of the deployment, and I was privileged to join the crew at that point. I saw firsthand Ed Snyder's charismatic persona and its effect on his men. Too soon that summer's midshipman training cruise was over. The New Jersey was scheduled to steam again to Vietnam, but the order came to decommission her instead. When he spoke during the ceremony where he relinquished command to his successor, Captain Robert Peniston, Snyder expressed his bitterness: "War is hell, and it is also expensive, and the American people have tired of the expense of defending freedom."
With that, he drove away in his powder blue Thunderbird with New Jersey state license plates that bore the legend "BB-62." He became a rear admiral and later had a long tenure as oceanographer of the Navy. This past November, Snyder died at age 83. Retired Master Chief Petty Officer Tom Helvig serves as editor of an on-line newsletter, The Jerseyman (http://www.battleshipnewjersey.org/history/thejerseyman.php). After Snyder's passing, Helvig received many messages from former crew members who wrote of their admiration for the skipper. Several expressed their wish to have spent even more time under his command.
I share their wish.