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South Jersey

Monday, March 5, 2001

Volunteer finds `Big J' lives up to name

CLARK PERKS/Courier-Post
Frank Larkins (above), a resident of Deptford, scrapes loose paint off the ceiling of a room aboard the USS New Jersey.

Clark Perks recently spent time helping to get the USS New Jersey ready for its new life as a floating museum on the Camden Waterfront.

For months, I wanted to volunteer to help restore the USS New Jersey. Finally, there I was, on the deck of one of the most decorated warships in Navy history.

As I walked about, I found myself goggle-eyed with wonder.

No part of the ship is closed off. I stood on the bridge. I looked through the periscope. I saw the huge turbine engines. I explored the turret of one of the gigantic 16-inch guns. Altogether, it was 57,216 tons of fun.

Early last year, I signed up as a volunteer at the party at the E-Centre celebrating the selection of Camden as the battleship's home.

I didn't hear anything, though, but later I read in the Courier-Post that the Home Port Alliance was looking for volunteers.

To volunteer:
Contact the Home Port Alliance at 856-966-1652.
I called and got an application and a waiver in the mail. After I sent it back, a nice woman called and asked when I could volunteer. She said volunteers worked from 9: 30 a.m. to 3 p.m. and I could choose any day, Monday through Saturday. I picked a Thursday.

The ship is being prepared to open as a floating museum in September. It is docked at the Broadway terminal of the South Jersey Port Corp.

I told the guard at the gate I was a volunteer and he directed me to the Alliance offices, where I got a badge and was sent to the ship.

To board it, I had to cross a narrow metal gangplank. I noticed what looked like a 40-foot drop to the water below. Luckily, I'm not afraid of heights.

On board, the volunteers were painting the inside of the ship. There's a lot to paint.

The paint crew's team leader was Dennis Strasser of West Berlin, a Navy veteran.

"There's a saying in the Navy: If it moves, salute it. If it doesn't, paint it!" he said.

I was given a roll of masking tape and was taken one deck up and down a long corridor to a room where four men were masking off anything that wasn't a wall or ceiling.

Filing cabinets were in the center of the room and along two walls. I started wrapping them with the masking tape. It's funny how raw, manual labor feels like fun if you're volunteering.

A framed sign on the wall identified this as an aviation storeroom. I wrapped a filing drawer labeled "tomahawk." Beginning in 1982, the New Jersey carried 32 tomahawk long- range, subsonic cruise missiles.

There was a lot of wrapping to be done. It made me feel like the artist Christo.

Hank Eichert of Somerset was also wrapping away. I asked him how often he worked on the ship and he replied, "One day a week is all I can spare right now. Once I get off my ' honey do' list, I'll come down more often." A couple of the other guys chuckled.

Almost of the volunteers had gray hair and many were veterans. I saw a few women, however.

I asked one, Bernardette Menna of Cherry Hill, why she volunteered.

"It's just the idea of doing something that's important to our state and our country," Menna explained. "It's a wonderful place to work. It's like a family."

After we finished in the aviation storeroom, I started wrapping in a room with bunks for two sailors.

I soon discovered a cartoon sticker of a little girl torn from an envelope. The sticker had the date 1983 on it and the words, "Please write soon."

At lunch, I put the sticker with other artifacts found that day. Among them was a letter dated Oct. 21, 1983, welcoming a sailor to the ship. There was also a campaign ribbon.

On Thursdays, volunteers get free pizza, donated by a pizza shop. I got to see the whole ship and free pizza! It doesn't get better than that.

There were about 50 volunteers working this particular Thursday. Frank Larkins of Deptford, co-supervisor of volunteers, told me there had been 98 on a recent Saturday, most of them Boy Scouts.

"I've never seen so many people from so many different walks of life get along so well," said Larkins, who will turn 80 this summer.

At lunch, I met John Horan of Cherry Hill, a team leader and an original crew member. The ship was commissioned in 1943, and Horan served on it until just after the end of World War II.

Someone had said Horan could show me the entire ship. I asked him, and he was happy to oblige.

He took me up to the bridge where we could look down on two of the 16-inch guns. They looked even larger from above. Each one looks bigger than my house.

On the deck below the bridge, Horan showed me where he served as a signalman.

"There used to be a telescope right here," he said, pointing to an empty mount. "We used to watch the nurses sunbathe on the hospital ships."

Inside, he showed me the five stars on the floor where Fleet Admiral William F. "Bull" Halsey's chair was. Since Horan's post was right outside, he saw Halsey often and recalled, "We had coffee together."

Horan took me through the bowels of the ship. I saw the galley, the hospital and the engine room.

As we walked the corridors, the top of my head just barely passed beneath light fixtures and doorways. I'm 5-foot-10. My guide, who was over 6 foot, had to bend forward. "There' s lots of things to bang your head on," he said with a smile.

There's also lots of ways to get lost. The ship is nearly as long as three football fields and wider than any other ship of its kind.

If it looks huge from the outside, it looks even bigger on the inside. The ship is so big, I couldn't believe it moved.

It's a floating city and it even has a post office. Passageways seem to lead on forever and, in some areas, they twist and turn like a maze. It would be easy to get lost. For that reason, every volunteer signs in - and out.

Horan told me every volunteer gets a tour of the ship too but, "Some people volunteer for one day, get a tour and don' t come back."

I'm not one of those. I've already scheduled my next visit.

Clark Perks, the Courier-Post's online editor, designed a number of the newspaper's front pages involving the USS New Jersey's return to Camden.

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