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Battleship New Jersey

Vince Mendes grew up in Highlands, son of Vince and Catherine Mendes, and grandson of the Kavookjians, all incredible people who have donated so generously to the history and love of Highlands. Young Vince grew up, served in the Navy, went to college, served on the Highlands Council, and went on with his life. Today, he lives in Flowery Branch, Georgia, a town with about the same population of Highlands and lying on the shore of Lake Lanier, not exactly the mighty Shrewsbury River but quite wonderful in its own right. Vinnie also writes a column in the local newspaper and has shown himself to be talented, fascinating in his writing style, and still proud of his hometown and state, as well as his family.

In a recent column, he spoke about the wonder of being a kid living in a town with “a river to swim in and sail on” and “endless acres of coastal woods to play in.” He wrote of the “hills honey-combed with bunkers and tunnels,” both on the former Air Force base and at Fort Hancock, and recalled the hours of fun he and his friends had imagining all kinds of adventures as they toured the tunnels and aisles that connected the bunkers. He spoke of the “guns as big as stars with shells as big as streets” and noted they were the same size guns as were on the nation’s nine great battleships.  Then he recalled a story about his brother Paul, another college graduate who went through Army ROTC, and unlike Vince, stayed in military service for the next 28 years and retired as a full Colonel. Vince said that in his retirement Brother Paul made more money that Vinnie ever did working. 

Vinnie related one of Paul’s stories about the time the soldier was in the jungle with a company of soldiers, they were pinned down and enemy fire was drawing closer. Paul’s life was at stake, but to him more importantly and more fearfully, was the fact he was also responsible for the safety of all those men under him.  This one incident about Paul makes every Highlander, make that New Jerseyan, proud.

Vinnie wrote: “Quickly calculating the odds for survival, he called into headquarters for artillery support. Unfortunately all the Army artillery units were engaged, but the fellow said the Navy might have a unit in the area. Paul wasn’t very optimistic because he knew they were at least 15 miles from the coast. But a minute later the voice came back over the radio telling him he was being patched through to ‘Sledgehammer.”

Now all the Army artillery units had names like “Tackhammer,” “Clawhammer,” “Ball Peen,” etc. This made him wonder, “What is ‘Sledgehammer.’? Anyway, he radioed in the coordinates for the location and was told to take cover. Next thing he knew KABOOM!. The entire side of the hill disappeared. It was like a B-52 strike!

He radioed in “Mission accomplished” then asked, “What the f**** was that?” The voice came back over the radio. “Son, that was the Battleship New Jersey.”  He thought, “Greetings from home; and not a moment too soon.”

Vince wrote the story to honor his brother. Col. Paul Mendes died, Aug. 12, 2019.  He asked if I could share the story with the Azzolina family as well, recalling that it was another great Highlands native, Capt. Joseph Azzolina, who not only served aboard the Battleship New Jersey but as a Senator also worked so hard to bring the ship back to New Jersey to become the magnificent museum to American history it remains in Camden today.

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