Battleship New Jersey
Philadelphia, May 1968

As a 12-year-old, I had two major passions: photography and building models of Navy ships and planes. Finding a way to combine both hobbies seemed like a natural to me. The Brooklyn Navy Yard was directly across the East River from where I lived on Manhattan's Lower East Side. I'd walk to a park at the river's edge, looking across toward Brooklyn, and wait patiently to photograph any of the warships as they were moved in and out of the shipyard. America's newest aircraft carrier, the USS Saratoga, was under construction at Brooklyn Navy Yard at the time, and I began photographing it at every opportunity. Pretty soon I was shooting all of the other aircraft carriers that visited New York. On weekends, I would ride the subway for almost an hour to the last stop in Brooklyn, then transfer to a bus for another half-hour, until I got to Floyd Bennett Naval Air Station, where I would stand all day (me and New York's biggest mosquitoes) on the side of the highway with my camera pointing up, shooting Navy jet fighters as they landed. I wanted to be a Navy pilot long before I ever thought of becoming a photographer. When I saw my first battleship, the USS New Jersey, I got hooked on dreadnoughts as well. What a beautiful subject the battleship was. To me, it had the same appeal--sleek, low lines and a beautiful profile--that a sportscar had to most boys my age.

In late 1967, with the Vietnam War raging, the Navy announced that they were recalling the New Jersey, which had been mothballed 10 years earlier, to active duty. I ran right to the picture editor of Life Magazine and offered to do a photo essay which I called "Mothballs to Vietnam." I was thrilled when they gave me the go-ahead, and I spent the next year photographing the ship. I rode the New Jersey on all its sea trials, and ended up on the gun line in Vietnam's Gulf of Tonkin.


The Best of Leifer
The Best of Leifer

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