By MICHAEL T.BURKHART
Eight former Marines from South Jersey will go down in history as the first group to get a public tour of the USS New Jersey, now open for visitors on the Camden Waterfront.
The group of veterans, many of them members of Detachment 1775, were the first ones in line an hour before the 8:30 a. m. ribbon cutting.
"I didn't know our group would be the first aboard," said Don Burkhard, 63, of Pitman, who led the group up the gangplank Monday morning. "It's an honor."
They spent about two hours climbing around the ship, looking into gun turrets and investigating the officers' quarters during the guided tour. Even as the tour went through the ship, volunteers and contractors continued work on the battleship, which is not yet fully open to the public.
Docent John Mills, the first volunteer to complete tour guide training, led the group around the ship.
"I wanted to do this so I could learn about the ship but also teach the public," said Mills, a Navy veteran who was a firefighter on aircraft carriers during the Vietnam War.
Tours start near the bow of the USS New Jersey, with visitors getting a look at the forward two 16-inch turrets and the huge mechanism used to raise and lower the anchor. Mills explained that the ship is 887 feet long and had only a foot of clearance when passing through the Panama Canal.
The 16-inch guns could fire a 1,900-pound shell 23 miles.
"There's quite a bit of power behind it," said Mills, 57, of Maple Shade. "When you see one of those shells coming at you it's time to get a white flag."
Even when all six forward guns were fired at once, the weight of the New Jersey is so massive that it wasn't pushed back in the water, he said. Each 16-inch gun used six, 110-pound bags of powder to fire.
The steel deck was covered with teak wood to keep the interior from getting too hot in the sun. Unlike most woods, teak does not splinter when hit by an incoming shell.
Visitors also walked through the officers' dining hall, captain's quarters, bunk room and bridge.
In the combat engagement center - once the quarters of famed Admiral William F. Halsey Jr. before the ship was refitted in the 1980s - radar screens glowed under a soft blue light. Life-like mannequins manned the battle stations.
Even in the computer age, clear plastic boards were used to keep track of movements of other ships and weapons status. Personnel were trained to write backward, behind the board, so those at the stations always had a clear view.
"These guys were really good at what they were doing," said docent Paul Hanson, a retired Army master sergeant from Aston, Pa. "If you want to have some fun go home, take a piece of Plexiglas and try to write backward."
Burkhard saw the New Jersey in action off in the distance while he was on the ground near Red Beach in Vietnam.
"You could see the projectile leave the barrel," he said.
Al Bancroft, a retired Marine Corps lieutenant colonel, also saw the New Jersey off the Vietnam coast. The restored battleship looks as good as new, he said.
"It's a great ship," said Bancroft, 62, of Voorhees. "It' s nice to have it home ported here where it belongs."
Bancroft said he plans to return with his brother, who was also a Marine, and his grandchildren.
"Everybody has to see this ... everybody," said Elmer Beach, 79, a former Marine who served in World War II. "As old as she is, she looks like she could go out again."
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