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2,000 invited to Big J ceremony

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  • Find video and stories dating to 1939 in our battleship section
  • Friday, May 23, 2003

    Historic battleship's 60th anniversary to be celebrated today

    Courier-Post Staff

    Helen Clauss of Bellmawr could hardly wait for today to arrive. Russell Collins of Palmyra felt the same way.

    She worked on the steel of the battleship USS New Jersey. He was a member of its original crew.

    They are among more than 2,000 guests invited to today's ceremony marking the 60th anniversary of the commissioning of the ship into the Navy during World War II.

    Now a museum on the Camden Waterfront, the battleship also is marking the addition of a new tour for visitors that shows off its massive firepower.

    The New Jersey is the most decorated battleship in naval history, with 19 campaign stars from World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Beirut crisis and Persian Gulf service before its last decommissioning in 1991.

    "I can't believe it. It's been so many years. She was always - and still is - so overwhelming, so big," said Clauss, 79, who recently donated a Philadelphia Naval Shipyard newspaper marking the ship's launching on Dec. 7, 1942. The commissioning came five months later.

    Collins was just 18 when he reported in 1943 to the ship, designated BB-62.

    "To me, it's a whole new ship because so many changes have been made since World War II, and I'm getting to see more now than then because we were not allowed to roam just anywhere," said the ex-crewman, 77, who has been asked to help cut the anniversary cake today.

    The historic ship has undergone several modernizations and restoration is still ongoing.

    The most recent change came this week - the addition of a firepower tour.

    Like the ship's general tour, it is two hours long but with greater emphasis on the ship's major weapons - its mammoth 16-inch gun turrets with rifle barrels 66 feet long and diameters of 12 inches; the 5-inch gun mounts; the Harpoon anti-ship missile; and the longer-range Tomahawk cruise missile.

    "It's an an exciting development for those interested in modern warship technology or traditional battleship gunnery," said ship curator Scott Kodger.

    Later this summer, he said, he expects delivery of a major addition to enhance the visitor experience - an SH2F Sea- sprite helicopter like those used on the ship in the 1980s. The ship, one of four Iowa-class ships, the largest built by the Navy, is restored to that era.

    The firepower tour has additional stops like the upper ammunition room just below the 5-inch gun mount on the port side and the helicopter control room. It is now the only tour that features the combat engagement center.

    "If you want to see how the sailors fought, take the firepower tour. If you want to see how they lived and worked, take the general tour," advised tour operations coordinator Rolland Garber.

    Eighth-graders on school trips saw part of the 5-inch gun-loading operation Thursday as Garber slammed shells and black gun powder casings into shoots that send them up to the gun mount.

    Garber told them 13 men walked in an assembly-line circle in the cramped room while 14 manned the mount above with the two guns.

    "See, I did it!," said Cami Marlatt, 14, a student at Meadowbrook Middle School in Byesville, Ohio. She got to try loading with classmate Kristin Waers, also 14.

    "It was amazing the crew could do so much in so little time and space," Kristin said.

    Visitors like Anthony Gorrell and Dana LaCour, both 14, of Linwood Middle School, peered through the sighting scope inside Turret No. 3, which has three of the nine main, 16-inch battery guns.

    "These can fire a Volkswagen bus from here to about Hammonton (almost 30 miles away)," Garber said to their astonishment.

    After rotating the scope to view the Delaware River and a port crane, Anthony said, "I didn't think the guns or the ship was going to be this big."

    Reach Carol Comegno at (609) 267-9486 or

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