By BILL SHRALOW
Robert Furmanski's pride swells when he looks at the USS New Jersey, particularly because he recalls how the battleship looked before renovations started in the summer of 2000.
When it arrived at the former Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, the nation's most decorated warship was encased in peeling paint and rust. Now it sparkles on the Camden Waterfront, reborn as the Battleship New Jersey Memorial and Museum.
"What makes me feel good is remembering how it looked in the Navy yard and how it looks now," said Furmanski, of Haddon Heights.
"It was sad to see a ship in that condition," said Andy Wager, of Barrington.
Furmanski, 68, Wager, 71, and their fellow Navy veteran Charles Stewart, 77, of Haddonfield, were among dozens of volunteers honored Monday.
Rep. Rob Andrews, D-N.J., presented the volunteers with a Congressional Commendation dated Monday. Retired Rear Adm. Thomas Seigenthaler, executive director of the Home Port Alliance, the nonprofit group that runs the museum, accepted the proclamation on behalf of workers.
The commendation acknowledges the efforts of more than 200 volunteers who helped refurbish the ship, right down to scraping paint, hauling trash and scrubbing decks.
Volunteers have also led thousands of visitors on tours, sharing their love and knowledge of the hulking ship.
"The region will forever be in debt to these individuals for their selfless work to restore this treasure back to her original elegance," Andrews said during a ceremony in the ship's wardroom, where officers once ate. "These men and women have exemplified the same spirit that enabled America to defeat the Axis powers during the 1940s."
"Everything you see painted, was painted by volunteers," Stewart said of the bright white paint throughout passageways. "The paint was flaking and peeling."
Volunteers have logged more than 133,000 hours on the battleship, according to Andrews. Since the ship opened to the public as a museum in October, more than 90,000 people have visited it, generating more than $1 million for the region's tourism industry, the congressman said.
"Much of this success is attributable to the costs saved as a result of the volunteer hours logged to restore and prepare this ship for its new mission as a floating museum," he said.
Wager said his favorite part of leading tours is " helping the people get excited about the ship, watching their eyes light up, the young and the old."
As for the recognition, Wager said he and fellow volunteers thank Andrews and other officials, such as Rep. Jim Saxton, R-N.J., and state Sen. John Matheussen, R- Gloucester, for getting the battleship docked in Camden instead of North Jersey.
"We wouldn't have a job," Wager said, "without his efforts and those of his colleagues."