By CAROL COMEGNO
More than 400 people visited the Battleship New Jersey Memorial and Museum from as far away as California on Monday, its first day open to the public following a $7 million renovation.
Although no one knew how many would come, the turnout was under the 500 or more expected by some officials of the Home Port Alliance, the nonprofit group that operates the nation's most decorated battleship.
However, those who came to the new Camden Waterfront attraction gave the ship fabulous reviews. Many were moved by seeing turret gun barrels 16 inches in diameter, moving radar screens and working weapons monitors as they snaked through the dimly lighted combat center and walked along the main deck.
"I've still got goose bumps. There's so much history to it, and the men who worked on it were so brave," said Marie Kirk of Marlton. "When you see it standing a distance from it, it's enormous, but once you get on it, it's even bigger - especially those guns!"
Program director Jack Shaw said the public opening intentionally was planned for the first day of the work week to avoid a crush of tourists. "This makes it easier to practice for guided tours and work out the timing and make adjustments," he said.
More than twice as many people were aboard Sunday for the grand opening, an invitation-only event for dignitaries, former crew members, ship volunteers and retired workers who helped build the Big J.
"I don't think anybody was disappointed with the number that turned out," said Patricia Jones, co-chair of the alliance board. "We had planned a soft opening on a weekday, when most people are at work or in school, so we would not be inundated."
Jones said the Monday turnout was close to the alliance' s estimate, pointing out that short notice of the opening - announced just 10 days earlier - did not give people much time to plan a trip.
The museum project so far has cost $22 million, half of which was spent on a new T-shaped pier that showcases the ship on the Delaware River across from the Philadelphia skyline. Grants from state, federal and local governments, and the Delaware River Port Authority financed it.
The ship, built at the former Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, has 19 battle stars from World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War and the Beirut Crisis.
Shaw said the hope is that the historic ship will attract 250,000 to 300,000 visitors a year.
In order to meet its operating budget - estimated at about $5 million annually - revenue also must be generated from future sleepovers and special event fees, as well as donations, Shaw said. A $7.2 million state grant is pending.
Kirk came with her husband, Jesse, a forklift operator. They took the day off to celebrate his birthday with a tour of the ship - the largest battleship ever built by the Navy and one of four in the category known as the Iowa class.
He agreed with his wife's assessment: "It makes your heart pound."
The couple said their tour guide made the experience even more meaningful because he was a former Navy battleship sailor who had interesting personal stories to tell - like how the ship crashed through swamping waves in hurricanes without sinking.
They also found the wax mannequins very lifelike. "The one of Admiral (William) Halsey looks exactly like his pictures," Marie Kirk said, referring to the World War II admiral who was born in Elizabeth, Union County.
Many of the tour guides, such as Tom Helvig of Mount Laurel, are veterans from different branches of the service. Some served on battleships, including on the New Jersey during its nearly 50 years of service between World War II and 1991.
"I've been waiting to tell the public the story of the ship, and I'm so glad she is finally open," said Helvig, a Navy veteran who served in 1954 aboard the battleship Iowa, one of the New Jersey's sister ships.
He rattled off statistics to his tour group: Each of the two bow anchors' chains weigh 30,000 pounds, and each are 1, 100 feet long; the boilers generate 212,000 horsepower; and the 16-inch guns can fire a shell almost 25 miles.
"We used to get our gedunk (naval slang for ice cream) and watch movies out on the deck of the fantail (aft of the ship). We thought we were living!" Helvig told them. He also explained that he loaded the 16-inch shells onto hoists that took them to the top of a gun turret.
Two of his tour group members were Jerome Marr of San Jose, Calif., and Steven Cox of Detroit. The two former crew members of the New Jersey, thrilled at seeing familiar places, told some of their own stories to the tour group.
"That's exactly what it looked like when I was here from 1988 to 1991," said Marr, 38, pointing to the enlisted mess deck where sailors ate.
Later, Marr was treated to a special tour, as are all veterans of the crew who visit. He got to see the boilers below deck where he was the lieutenant in charge. He re- enacted the firing of the boilers by shoving in a flaming rag with a rammer, smiling all the while.
"I think they've done an incredible job of repairing the ship and keeping it in good condition," Marr said. "I just wish she was still on the sea because you can tell she's made for fighting with all this armor plate inches thick, and just looks powerful."
Although the ship has close to 100 tour volunteers, the 21 volunteers on board Monday were able to handle tours for 15 or fewer visitors at a time. Tours left every few minutes.
While one guide led the tours, areas such as the radio room and combat engagement center were manned by a permanently assigned docent who offered facts and other details.
From 8:30 a.m. until 3 p.m. Monday, there was a steady trickle of visitors to see the New Jersey.
Derrick White of Willingboro, 14, was so awed during his tour that he remained speechless until the end.
"I liked everything," said White, the son of a Navy commander who came to the New Jersey with his grandmother. " These battleships are big, powerful and have amazing technology."
On the waterfront at the end of the New Jersey's new $11 million pier, which still needs finishing touches, a couple danced the jitterbug and Lindy to big band music played by Philadelphia radio station WPEN-AM.
Inside the visitors center, the U.S. Postal Service offered 34-cent envelopes with a first-day stamp cancellation denoting the battleship's public debut.
Ship curator Scott Kodger said the tours went extremely well.
"I heard no complaints," he said. "We quizzed most of the people as to how they enjoyed the tour and asked them what could be improved. Almost without exception, everyone said their tour guide was wonderful."
Some special tours will be offered soon, such as tours of only the main deck that include exhibits, he said. Alliance Vice President Donald Norcross said tour changes can be made as the market requires.
The ship was moved to its new mooring on the waterfront last month after several delays, ranging from construction problems to the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
The Navy awarded the ship to the alliance in January 2000 after an intense competition with the state battleship commission, which lost its bid to put the ship in Bayonne. The ship was towed from Bremerton, Wash., in 1999 to the Delaware River, and then moved to South Camden last summer. There it underwent more than a year of repair by contractors and hundreds of volunteers from around the country.
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