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South Jersey

Monday, January 29, 2001

Battleship curator has experience, enthusiasm

Courier-Post Staff

As a boy, Scott Kodger could not get enough of warships.

He remembers wondering how so much heavy steel could float and marveling that sailors could spend months at a time at sea.

Rejected for enlistment in the Navy because of physical disabilities, his passion led him to become a naval surface warfare historian and museum director - preparation for his new job as the first curator of the battleship USS New Jersey.

The USS New Jersey is one of four Iowa-class battleships, the largest the Navy ever built.

"This is the absolute pinnacle of a naval curator's career, to be given the honor of helping preserve and interpret the New Jersey. It doesn't get any better than this," said Kodger, 31, who has moved from Ohio to Williamstown.

Kodger will help develop an exhibit plan for the ship, also known as BB-62, due to open for public tours Sept. 2 after refurbishment that is expected to cost up to $7 million. A new pier for exclusive use of the ship will be constructed along the Waterfront near Wiggins Park in downtown Camden.

Kodger said he developed his early fascination with battleships because of a serious illness that kept him hospitalized for half a dozen years early in life, making reading one of his few pastimes.

He calls the New Jersey, a World War II warship that fought in three major wars, the "modern version" of the Colonial frigate USS Constitution, which is berthed in Boston, and just as important.

"She is the most decorated and will always be in the top five ships in U.S. history. Her decks are hallowed," Kodger said. "She served 48 years around the world and has seen and been a part of a lot of world history."

Kodger, who calls Cleveland home, came from a museum job in Amherst, Ohio, but formerly was the curator of the Buffalo and Erie County Naval and Military Park. There, he oversaw three ships - the USS Little Rock (CGL-4), The Sullivans (DD-537) and the USS Croaker (SSK-246). He said the tonnage of the New Jersey alone equals that of those three ships combined.

He said the cruiser Little Rock has similarities to the bigger, 887-foot-long New Jersey because they are both from World War II, have wooden decks and were modernized with missiles.

"He brings a lot of experience and is used to dealing with a museum in a cold winter environment like New Jersey," said Thomas Seigenthaler, executive director of the Home Port Alliance, which is overseeing the ship's refurbishment. "He also has an established professional relationship with the Naval Historical Center in Washington."

Still as mesmerized by massive ships as he was as a youth, Kodger could not wait until he started work a little more than a week ago to get a look at his new project. He said that the night before he reported for his post at the Home Port Alliance office, he came down to the Broadway Terminal where the ship is docked for restoration and was allowed to just gaze at it for the first time in his life.

"It was a pretty stunning sight that took my breath away. She looked so graceful sitting there in the water," he said.

Walking the wooden deck Friday, still learning his way around the ship's passageways and compartments, Kodger was excited at every turn, especially at seeing some of the artifacts that have been found aboard ship.

He is already researching a unique item to be found on a ship - a pair of mounted Texas cattle longhorns, which he suspects may have been in the quarters of Admiral William " Bull" Halsey. The USS New Jersey served in the Pacific during World War II as the flagship for Halsey, a five-star Fleet Admiral and native of Elizabeth. One of Kodger's tasks will be cataloging the longhorns and other artifacts.

He said he is impressed by the interior condition of the New Jersey, which he said has been well-maintained since decommissioning in 1991 and is in better condition than the battleship Missouri, a sister ship now a museum in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

"This is a plus because interior work is always more complicated than exterior," said Kodger, a history graduate of the State University of New York at Buffalo.

He said his biggest challenge is to "do honor and justice to the men who served on her" and to the citizens of New Jersey by telling the story of the ship and its crews.

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