By CAROL COMEGNO
A mist swirled close to the wet, warped deck of the battleship USS New Jersey as the sun evaporated a cool morning rain.
On a recent damp day, Robert Lian of of Westampton walked aboard the ship, which was once his home at sea, for the first time in 15 years.
He climbed up one deck on the bow and stepped up into Turret No. 2, which holds three of the ship's nine now silent 16-inch diameter guns. The most powerful U.S. naval guns ever built, they could hurl their shells more than 20 miles.
It was familiar territory for the Lockheed Martin chemical engineer and former Navy lieutenant. He was the officer in charge of that turret from 1981 until after the ship's mission off Lebanon in 1983, when a suicide terrorist bomb explosion killed 241 U.S. Marines and sailors at the Marine barracks at Beirut International Airport.
While stepping up into the turret from a hatch on its underside, Lian's first reaction was, "smells the same," noticing the scent of an oil-based preservative used to coat metals on the ship.
He felt at home standing at his former command station. He wore one of his original ship hats and recounted procedures and commands used to load and fire the guns in his turret.
"It's like I never left. It's pretty scary I remember so much," said Lian, 48.
"I realized the dangers of the job because of the potential for explosions inside the turret, but it was the closest I could come to having a command. It was fun and a challenge to make sure the guns operated safely."
The 59-year-old ship, one of the most highly decorated in the Navy, is now undergoing a $7 million restoration in Camden in preparation for opening as a floating naval museum this fall on the downtown Waterfront.
Inside the turret, Lian detailed his mission off Lebanon, the time the center gun in his turret was replaced and a test firing at sea over the rear of the ship instead of to the side as usual.
"It was President Reagan who reactivated the battleships, but there was always political rivalry between the surface Navy and the air Navy flying planes off aircraft carriers," he said. "I saw this firsthand in discussions in the ward room of our ship where the offices gathered. Secretary of the Navy (John) Lehman (Jr.) was upset over these internal disputes and wrote about them later in a book.
"At first we were not allowed to fire our guns on Lebanon because Adm. Gerry Tuttle, who was in charge of our battle group aboard the carrier Eisenhower, favored air strikes and arbitrarily decided our guns were not accurate enough," Lian recalled. "He believed battleships took military money away from aircraft, so we just sat and sat and sat offshore for weeks, becoming a joke.
"We finally fired the guns on Lebanon after the Syrians captured a radar operator from an Eisenhower aircraft that went down. The pilot had been killed."
Then, in February 1984, when the rest of the Marines left Lebanon, the battleship fired its massive guns again. " We fired almost blindly because air would not give us any spotting data for targets and we had to rely on Israeli target information that was not all that accurate. Supposedly we hit an ammo dump and took out a Syrian general, but we never got verification. However, the Marines met no resistance as they left," he said.
He said the turret crew was lucky to fire the gun once every five minutes.
"The advertised rate of fire in our books was two rounds per minute, but it was hard to sustain that because the powder bags are so heavy and had to be handled all by hand. The projectiles were all from World War II and some of the powder was also," he recalled.
During that Lebanon incident, the ship could only fire an 8-gun volley (from the nine guns of the three main battery turrets). Our center gun was deemed unsafe to fire because of wear," he recalled.
His last duty on the ship was to help supervise removal of the center rifle barrel in 1984 and install one that had been used for test firing at Dalgren, Va.
One firing that stood out in Lian's mind was when the gunnery officer wanted to see the effect of the guns firing to the rear and ahead instead of broadside.
"The blasts from Turret 3 scorched the after deck and pushed in by 6 inches a deck motion picture projection booth that had been used years before to show films to the crew. It also sheered the bolts off the top of the brass line-handling capstan," Lian said, referring to the device used for hoisting heavy objects such as an anchor. "The boatswain wasn't too happy about that but at least his crew didn't have to polish the brass anymore," he said.