By STEVE LEVINE
Up to 1,000 people toured the historic battleship USS New Jersey during its first Saturday open to the public, some waiting up to two hours in the balmy sunshine.
Among them were Ginny Tobin and Beverly ``Bud'' Briggs, longtime friends from Pennsylvania, who were celebrating Briggs' 79th birthday.
"Whoever has a birthday chooses what we do," Tobin said. "He chose this."
Briggs, an Army Air Corps veteran of World War II, said the ship's size impressed him the most.
"It's different, all right," he said. "The 16-inch guns are so much larger than you'd think."
Two-hour tours of the Iowa-class warship - the largest, fastest and most powerful U.S. battleship built - are available from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., seven days a week.
By midafternoon, almost 200 people were in line waiting to cross the gangplank for the tour.
"We've been averaging about 400 (visitors) a day since Monday," when the ship opened to the public, said Joseph Fillmyer, head of the museum's volunteer programs. " Probably 800 to 1,000 will come through today."
Fillmyer said tours are going smoothly, but the museum needs more volunteer tour guides. "If that's the only growing pains we have, it's not too bad," he said.
The tour covers only about 30 percent of the ship, but it's a lot of ground over a relatively short period, he said. The USS Missouri battleship museum in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, "doesn't have half as much as we do," Fillmyer said.
Visiting the ship Saturday was a Cub Scout pack from Marlton, some of whom spoke with Scouts across the country over the ship's ham radio. While some were visibly awed by the ship's big guns, Nick Jannicelli, 7, said the communications gear was what excited him.
"I just liked talking on the radio," he said.
The warship brought back memories for his father, also named Nick, who served on the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal 20 years ago.
"It was cool getting back on a ship," he said.
Bob Walters, 64, of Cinnaminson, served on the USS New Jersey in the 1950s after the ship returned from action in the Korean War. Walters celebrated three birthdays aboard the ship and is now its artifacts collections manager. A life-size picture of Walters and two of his shipmates stands in one of the exhibit rooms. At the height of its service during World War II, the ship had a crew of up to 3, 000, Walters said.
The Home Port Alliance, the nonprofit group that runs the museum, must keep the ship in serviceable condition because the Navy could theoretically call it back into service, Walters said.
However, it's unlikely that would ever happen, he said. And if the first week's crowd is any indication, the public would hate to let her go. "People are just walking off thanking us," he said.
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