By CAROL COMEGNO
World War II veteran James McNamee trudged up an inclined gangway to the battleship USS New Jersey on a first brief visit last year. But he now lacks the strength to make it up that gangway again.
Luckily, he did not have to on Tuesday.
For the first time, new pierside elevators were available to lift McNamee and others with physical disabilities the two stories to the main deck.
Without the elevators, these visitors would have been unable to view the just-released video tour of the nation's most decorated battleship. It was made especially for visitors who are physically challenged. The video will not be released to the public.
The video was financed by the History Channel and Comcast with ship facts and figures provided by staff of the nonprofit Home Port Alliance, which operates the floating museum on the city waterfront.
The video tour and handicapped access thrilled McNamee of Gloucester City, Mary Martella of Bellmawr and state battleship commission member Stuart Chalkley of Piscataway, all of whom took the elevator ride.
"The elevators are terrific and makes it so much easier for some veterans and others to come aboard," said McNamee, 78, who has a bad knee.
He called the film about the "Big J" informative. "Being an Army man, we didn't know anything about ships except as taxis to take us to war," he said.
The project was "a labor of love" for Comcast, said William Kettleson, a company spokesman. "We were happy to authorize a video tour for visitors unable to navigate the narrow passageways and stairwells."
Producer Greg Bernarducci of the History Channel said no other video in its Emmy-winning "Save our History" series has been as rewarding as this was.
The ship's executive officer, retired Rear Adm. Thomas Seigenthaler, said he was grateful for the joint support from Comcast and the History Channel and sees the video as well as the elevators as positive steps in accommodating all visitors.
Several dozen veterans watched the video tour inside the main deck wardroom, where Navy officers once met for meals and meetings. Two elevators provided access to the ship fore and aft. Attached stairways have replaced the gangways.
Mary Martella, who is in a wheelchair since suffering a stroke, said the elevator enabled her to accompany her Navy veteran husband as she normally does to Navy reunions and similar events.
On a visit two summers ago for a special event at the ship before tours were allowed she had some difficulty walking with a cane up the gangway.
She called the video "beautiful" and enjoyed seeing places she is unable to enter - the navigation bridge on an upper deck and the boiler rooms in the bowels of the ship. The walking tour takes about two hours.
Rocky Bleier, a former Pittsburgh Steelers running back and Vietnam War veteran, narrates the 24 minutes of history and tour spots. In it, he recalls the contribution the ship made in 1968-69 when it bombarded Communist targets along the Vietnamese coast with its nine guns, each 16 inches in diameter.
It also features historic photos of the ship's construction at the former Philadelphia Navy Yard, its service in four major wars and conflicts since its launching in 1942 and its 19 campaign stars.
State battleship commissioner Walter Olkowski of Bridgewater, an original crew member in World War II, said he found the video pretty accurate and professional.
George Martella, 81, a Navy veteran of World War II who served on the USS San Diego and Mary's husband, called the video very educational. "I loved the narration by Rocky Bleier," he said.
Reach Carol Comegno at (609) 267-9487 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org