By CAROL COMEGNO
Teacher Karin Jones was already intrigued by the battleship USS New Jersey when she heard Camden County College was offering a free course about its history to teachers.
Though she had never been aboard it, she knew the ship had come here to open as a museum and knew that during World War II her grandfather had helped build what became the Navy's most decorated battleship.
Her family connection and her belief the ship's history would fit into her course curriculum led her to sign up for the five-week spring course taught mainly by staff and volunteers of the Home Port Alliance, the nonprofit coalition that operates the Battleship New Jersey Memorial and Museum in Camden.
She was thrilled she did.
"It fits so beautifully into my curriculum and I was eager to see what my grandfather had built," said history teacher Jones of Gloucester Township, who teaches at Bunker Hill Middle School in Washington Township.
As a result of the course, she also discovered that the father of one of her students had served on the New Jersey off Beirut in the early 1980s when a terrorist explosion killed Marines and a sailor from the New Jersey who was with them.
Jones said the manual she received in the class about the ship's history will be a great asset in her classes in the teaching of World Wars I, II and the Vietnam War.
About 80 teachers who took the workshop learned the ship is the most decorated battleship to serve in the Navy with 19 campaign and battle stars during a career that spanned four major wars from 1943 to 1991. They heard about its size - nearly three football fields at 887 feet long - as a ship in the Iowa class, the largest battleship class.
Two of the five nights of the course were held on the battleship and the other three at either the Blackwood or Cherry Hill campuses.
The first time school librarian Michelle Marhefka of Mantua saw the "Big J," one of the ship's nicknames, was when she came to the Camden Waterfront for the tour one of the class nights.
"I said to myself, `Wow! How impressive she was sitting in the water,' " she told other teachers.
The groups took a two-hour tour of the ship and heard presentations from the ship's museum staff.
They expressed amazement at the complexity and the many compartments of the ship, a floating city which includes a library, chapel, post office, store and barbershop.
For recreation, there were boxing and bowling teams and periodic beauty contests in which sailors dressed up as women.
Most were fascinated to see the cramped living quarters where men slept four high in narrow bunks with little headroom.
Some enjoyed the colorful sailor artwork the best. Others were mesmerized by the access to the combat engagement center and its interactive exhibits that show the ship's famed 16-inch guns firing and the launching of its missiles.
Stories told by former crewmembers of the New Jersey like Robert Walters of Cinnaminson and Kenneth Kersch of Monmouth Junction the last night of class this month captured the teachers' attention.
As the teachers sat in the officers' gathering place known as the wardroom, the staff played the call to battle stations for the teachers on the ship's public address system.
"General Quarters. All hands to their battle stations," it boomed.
Walters, who was on the ship during the Korean War era, said no matter what a sailor was doing he left and went directly to his battle station. Walters' post was on the navigation bridge.
Walters, who collected memorabilia about the ship as a hobby for years, now gets paid to do what he calls a "fun job" as the museum artifacts manager.
Kersch, now a tour guide, recalled firing 3,000 rounds of ammunition during the Vietnam War and the variety show that Bob Hope and Ann-Margret put on for the sailors when the ship was firing at landside targets in 1968. He said the show was held on the top of Turret No. 1 of the main battery.
He said Hope walked out onto the turret and directed the ship's captain to move all the officers off the turret and into the audience with the enlisted men before he would start the show. "He told the captain he did his show for the sailors," Kersch said.
Marcia Klock of Port Norris, a teacher at Moorestown Upper Elementary School, said hearing the ex-sailors talk about their experiences enhanced their own learning experience. "It made the ship so much more real and they passed their excitement on to us," she said.
Her husband, Anthony, also a teacher, said he has arranged to bring his class from Kresson Elementary School to the ship for a tour on Flag Day and will get to raise a U.S. flag on the mast of the ship.
Marcia Klock said her students are already intrigued by the material she has displayed about the ship on the bulletin board.
"You mention the battleship today and most kids don't even know what a battleship is. They tend to know more about military aircraft," said John Thumm of Berlin Borough, a teacher in Winslow.
Joan Leber of Collingswood, a basic skills teacher at St. John's School in Collingswood, said books don't always connect students to learning.
"I was looking for something to pique their interest because to them, World War II is ages ago," she said.
Math teacher Gina Masem-Lammers of Collingswood said she plans to adapt what she learned about the ship's statistics into her curriculum at the Longfellow School in Pennsauken.
"We'll use mathematical conversions to deal with fathoms, speed of the ship and size of the ship," she said
College officials said they hope to be able to offer this program every year in the summer and again in the fall with some course modifications.
Jack Pesda, the political science and history professor in charge of the partnership project, said the course gives teachers credits toward state requirements for continuing educational development.
The teaching of battleship's history to school students at various grade levels in New Jersey may become mandatory.
A proposal to include it as part of the statewide curriculum is currently under consideration by the state Department of Education.
Pesda and alliance program director Jack Shaw said the response from course critique was very positive.
"They were pleased and very enthused, which for our first try at this was great," Shaw said.
Camden County College plans to continue offering free to teachers its course on the history of the Battleship New Jersey. Classes are expected to resume in the fall. For more information, call Jack Pesda at (856) 227-7200, ext. 4432.