Tour offers inside look at big job on `Big J'

Restoration work begins on aged battleship in Camden harbor

January 24, 2001|By Joseph A. Gambardello | Joseph A. Gambardello,KNIGHT RIDDDER/TRIBUNE

CAMDEN, N.J. - In the world of fixer-uppers, the USS New Jersey is no place for a Martha Stewart.

This is a place of steel walls and linoleum floors, of deliberately exposed wires and hanging pipes, where space is tight and even the admiral's stateroom is no bigger than something you might find at a Holiday Inn.

To navigate between its decks, climbing up and down narrow companionways and avoiding knee-knockers at every hatch, is to understand why seamen should be able-bodied. After nearly a decade in mothballs, the armored dreadnought again has men moving about its interior, this time turning it into a floating museum that, its caretakers hope, will open to the public in September on the Camden waterfront.

The work at the South Jersey Port Corp.'s Broadway Terminal is in its early days, and now mostly involves replacing lightbulbs and opening hatches sealed when the 887-foot-long, 45,000-ton ship was mothballed in 1991.

Engineers, in the meantime, are examining the New Jersey to see what environmental remedies will be needed on a warship built when asbestos and PCBs were in common use. But overall, staffers of the Home Port Alliance, the nonprofit group working to turn the New Jersey into a memorial museum, are pleased with the condition of the ship's interior.

`A cream puff'

"We've got a cream puff here," said Frank Fletcher, an alliance staff member and a retired Navy lieutenant commander. Warships are "mothballed, not neglected."

Plans call for "The Big J" to be opened to the public in stages, with the first stage to include the main deck, the No. 1 gun turret, and the superstructure holding the officers' ward room, the captain's and admiral's staterooms, the combat command center, and the bridge.

A tour of these areas showed that mostly, the ship needs some paint and a good swabbing as well as mattresses for bunks, furniture for the staterooms, and equipment to replace what the Navy took off because it was classified or needed elsewhere.

"We've got a bunch to do to make this look like a good working space," Fletcher said inside the combat center, where missing equipment has left gaps that look like a 6-year-old's toothless smile.

The alliance, which has said it expects to spend about $7 million on the ship, hopes to open the lower decks to the public after restoration and environmental cleanup is completed.

In the meantime, Fletcher said, the group, using volunteers and contractors, is looking at restoring the battleship's teak deck by pressure-washing it and replacing damaged sections. The organization also plans to repaint the New Jersey in haze gray after water-blasting its old coat of paint.

Although its interior is dated compared with modern warships, the New Jersey, at one time home to up to 2,700 officers and sailors, is a testament to the Navy's merger of military technologies over the generations - stretching from the battleship's construction at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard during World War II to its last tour of duty, in 1990.

In the command center, a computer keyboard is next to a 1940s-vintage NC-2 gyroscopic plotter. On the bridge, you learn that the helmsman worked in an armored conning tower, his only view of the sea through a narrow slit in the 17-inch-thick steel.

Another `gee whiz'

"The armored conning tower is sure to be another `gee whiz' for the public," Fletcher said. "If you're going to slug it out heavyweight boxing with another armored ship on the horizon, throwing heavy shells at each other, you bring the watch [men] inside the tower."

But in a ship-repair storeroom, it appears that nothing has replaced the giant wooden plugs needed to stop holes on the hull.

Fletcher said that while the work on the ship was under way, researchers would seek to ensure that the museum gave an authentic depiction of what went where on the New Jersey.

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