By CAROL COMEGNO
Be prepared to duck, climb and hold on through narrow hallways, steep stairways and small doorways. Or else expect to shout "Ouch" as you bang your head or shins.
This is what visitors can expect when they tour the historic battleship USS New Jersey.
The tour route up and down ship decks will be a challenge to some.
When invited visitors begin coming aboard today at the grand opening of the Big J, they will take tours of 90 minutes to 2 hours for up to 15 people at a time. Public tours by trained guides begin Monday.
Some of the guides are former crew members who will weave personal experiences on board the ship with descriptions and facts about the Navy's most decorated and longest- serving battleship. Some docents will also man stations along the tour route.
Scott Kodger, the ship's curator, said visitors to the New Jersey will have greater on-board access than is allowed on two other Iowa-class ships on public display - the USS Missouri in Hawaii and the USS Wisconsin in Norfolk, Va.
"She also has much more of her equipment than many other museum ships," Kodger said.
Some stops may not be on the tour the first few days because the ship is still a "work in progress," Kodger said.
There will be no elevators to take physically challenged visitors from the new pier behind the Tweeter Center onto the ship until later this year, and there are no elevators between decks. Instead, visitors will climb tight stairways with only head-ducking room and walk through long, narrow corridors. They must step over doorways that have bottom " knee-knocker" partitions six to 12 inches high - part of the watertight door system.
Tours will start on the main deck. Guides will direct visitors up inside Turret No. 1, which boasts three massive 16-inch guns, where they can see how the guns were loaded and fired. The tour then heads up to the superstructure to see the admiral's bridge, signal bridge, the captain's and admiral's quarters, including the bed on which former World War II Adm. William "Bull" Halsey of Elizabeth slept.
Inside the combat engagement center, lifelike mannequins dressed in Navy uniforms of the 1980s man radar and missile launching panels complete with flashing lights and video displays. Visitors can watch a missile launch and the 16- inch guns firing on computer screens.
"This is unique to the battleship New Jersey. No other museum ship has a fully interactive combat engagement center environment," Kodger said.
The state battleship foundation paid about $250,000 for equipment located by Kodger for the engagement center with the help of Navy personnel from the Aegis Combat System Engineering Development Site in Moorestown. A dozen volunteer Navy technicians repaired, installed and tested the equipment.
Special exhibit rooms on the ship display artifacts, maps and photos depicting the life of a sailor and the history of the ship from its construction at the former Philadelphia Naval Shipyard to the present.
When the tour heads below deck, visitors will see the enlisted men's galley and mess where sailors ate, the traditional "gedunk" ice cream stand that will sell snacks, and more bunking areas. Tours will end at the ship's store, where T-shirts, books, mugs and other items are for sale.
Comcast and the History Channel are collaborating on a video tour of the battleship that will soon be available to onboard visitors who cannot take the full tour. The video tour will be narrated by Rocky Bleier, a Vietnam War veteran who was seriously wounded but went on to play professional football for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Bleier praised the ship when he was on board last week. " It has a remarkable tradition and what the volunteers and others have done in putting it back together is just as as remarkable," he said.
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