By BILL DUHART
Two friends on a lunch break from nearby offices strolled down a Waterfront walkway near Wiggins Park on Thursday to look at the mighty mass of gray steel docked in front of them.
``It's huge,'' said Phyllis Custis as she gazed and gaped at the USS New Jersey, the newest big-time attraction on the Camden Waterfront.
``It's unreal,'' her friend Charron Carter chimed in. `` It's like storybook stuff that it's actually here.''
And the best is yet to come.
It was their first glimpse of what will soon be a floating museum celebrating one of the most decorated battleships in the Navy's history. The USS New Jersey is nearly ready to be opened to the public after a multimillion-dollar face lift. Visitors will be able to do far more than look at its imposing silhouette against the Philadelphia skyline. They'll be able to touch it, climb its nearly vertical steps, wander through a maze of hallways and travel, as if in a time capsule, in a vessel that was the very essence of American military might.
The Home Port Alliance, the group restoring the historic ship, held a sneak preview for invited guests and media Thursday to showcase new onboard exhibits. They were made possible by a $1.2 million contribution from the Battleship Commission and Foundation, which campaigned to bring the ship, built in Philadelphia, to New Jersey. The exhibits include artifacts from the ship, interactive displays in the Combat Engagement control room, complete with monitors showing video of its massive guns in action and uniformed mannequins at the battle stations.
Alliance officials said they expect to announce an opening date for the ship within days. About 30 percent of the interior and decks will initially be open to the public while restoration work continues on the remainder of the ship.
``Today is the rebirth of the ship,'' said state Sen. John Matheussen, R-Gloucester, co-chairman of the Alliance and an important friend of the battleship in Trenton. Matheussen steered a $7.2 million appropriation for the ship through the Senate on Wednesday. The bill is expected to be approved by the Assembly soon and signed by acting Gov. Donald DiFrancesco, its other sponsor.
``It's an opportunity to prove to New Jersey that this ship belongs to all of us,'' Matheussen said. ``It's not a regional thing.''
Unity was a big theme Thursday. Matheussen and other Alliance officials thanked and praised Assemblyman Joseph Azzolina, R-Monmouth, who heads the Battleship Foundation and Commission, and lobbied hard to bring the New Jersey to Bayonne, near his home district in Monmouth and Middlesex counties. Azzolina also sounded conciliatory notes and vowed to make the battleship a statewide attraction.
``We're united,'' said Azzolina. ``We're one people, one New Jersey, one battleship.''
Azzolina helped lead a tour of the ship, on which he served during one of its last tours of duty, off the coast of Beirut, Lebanon, in 1983.
Azzolina, now 75, was 57 at the time. He served 42 years in the Navy.
He said his proudest career accomplishment was to help bring the battleship to New Jersey.
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