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Thursday, August 11, 2005Past Issues - S | M | T | W | T | F | S
South Jersey

'Big J' may be used for children's sleepovers

Courier-Post staff

CAMDEN - Thinking back on how "we slept on bunks five high," John Horan smiles when he envisions holding a sleepover on the USS New Jersey.

And it isn't just the sleeping arrangements that make it difficult for this World War II veteran to imagine his old ship as a floating bed-and-breakfast.

"We had one long trough, with seats that you pulled down over it," Horan said, referring to what some people call a "comfort station" but in the Navy is called "the head."

The 75-year-old former signalman needn't worry.

The Home Port Alliance's plan to use the ship for sleepovers is confined pretty much to groups like the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, in keeping with the ship's mission as an educational facility.

And the living quarters, like the ship, have been substantially remodeled since World War II.

Sleeping on the ship "will give the kids a chance to experience the shipboard environment," said Capt. David McGuigan, the retired Navy officer who was the principal author of the 1,700-page application that convinced the Navy to award the ship to Camden. "This way, it's not only a visit, something passive, it's an integrated process."

The students will eat, sleep and work on the ship, using what are called "holy stones," for example, to sand and smooth the teak deck, just as the deckhands in whose compartment they will be sleeping once did.

And speaking of the compartments, they are a far cry from what they were when he served on the "Big J," Horan knows.

The ship served in every war and major combat operation the United States engaged in, from World War II to the Persian Gulf War.

Like the rest of the ship, the living quarters have been refitted and reconfigured to the point where "old-timers who can't wait to get back and see where they slept won't recognize it," Horan said.

He's seen the inside of the USS Wisconsin, a sister ship of the New Jersey that also was upgraded, Horan said. Its molded bunks, compartments for eight and "separate commodes" bear slight resemblance to the conditions he remembers, with 50 or so men in a compartment, sleeping on pipe and canvas racks separated from sailors above or across a passageway by a few feet at most.

McGuigan said that opening officers' staterooms to visitors is "not in our present scheme," but could be in the future.

He said that adults are "not precluded" from requesting sleepovers, but will have to form a group and make a reservation and, like youth groups, have their own liability insurance.

The USS Massachusetts, which has been berthed in Fall River, Mass., and used as a museum for 30 years, has entertained overnight guests for the last 20 of them and considers the program a success.

The visitors are almost all youth groups, who usually stay for one weekend night and are charged $33 per person, said Ernst Cummings, the retired Coast Guard captain who heads the museum at Battleship Cove.

They bunk in enlisted quarters but eat in the wardroom, the officers' dining room.

The USS North Carolina does not host overnight guests yet but is planning to, promotions director Monique Faust said. Berthed in Wilmington, N.C., the North Carolina has been preserved in its World War II configuration.

"We're going to try it in officers' quarters, first," Faust said.

That, Horan would agree, is probably a wise move.

"We didn't have air conditioning," he said, "and in the South Pacific, the heat got pretty bad. We lay there in our own perspiration."

Pillowcases got a little rank, he recalled, with laundry done once a week, but, all in all, at least as he recalls it now, it wasn't that big a deal.

"We came up during the Depression years, and we didn't have air conditioning," said Horan, who grew up in Brooklyn. "We didn't think it was that bad."

Horan said he'd love to sleep over if the opportunity presents itself.

"For one night," he said.

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