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South Jersey

Sunday, December 10, 2000

USS Missouri curator offers advice for `Big J'

Gannett State Bureau

Don Hess has advice for those working to get the USS New Jersey up and running as a floating museum on the Delaware River in Camden: Plan on it taking more time and money than estimates allowed, and put the call out early for volunteers.

"Just a reminder that life hasn't changed," joked the amicable retired Navy captain who knows something about turning a famed warship into a popular attraction. His nonprofit organization converted the USS Missouri, which, like the New Jersey, is one of the four Iowa-class battleships. "Volunteers can be the key to success of the ship. Recruit them, encourage them, recognize them, remind them of their criticality. On the Missouri, volunteers continue to be the very backbone of the ship," Hess said.

Volunteers, numbering 20,000 in the past 2 years, do everything from helping strip and varnish the decks to the more specialized chores such as welding. Almost two years after the ship was opened to the public in January 1999, volunteers continue to come forth. On a recent Saturday, 67 showed up to augment the Missouri's 40 full-time and 60 part-time employees.

"Never forget what the ship represents - the sacrifice, dedication, bravery and honor of a nation. Treat the ship that way, always," Hess advised.

Under threatening Hawaiian skies framed by a rainbow, Hess stopped at a spot near where a World War II Japanese kamikaze pilot with a 500-pound bomb flew into the "Mighty Mo," leaving a dent visible 55 years later. There was no no explosion but the plane was cut in half.

"They found the pilot's torso over there," Hess said, " and the captain ordered he be given a military burial at sea. That bothered some people. But the captain reminded them he died fighting for his country.''

When guides tell the story, Japanese visitors are visibly moved, said Hess. Jobs as guides are not usually handled by volunteers because there has to be an adequate number every day to lead tourists, who average 900 a day.

Some days there are 400 special "Chief's Guided Tours," which cost $6 extra. The $14 general admission ($7 for kids) buys a self-guided tour but those visitors don't hear the colorful sea stories.

Nor do they go into the Combat Engagement Center, a room with everything from the transparent boards you see sailors writing on backward in war movies to the launch systems for Tomahawk missiles - the ones so accurate it's said they can go through a bathroom window and blow up a toothbrush.

This CEC didn't exist in the 1940s. Then it was where Admiral William "Bull'' Halsey lived when the Missouri served as his Third Fleet flagship during the final months of the war. Before that, the New Jersey was flagship for Halsey, who was from Elizabeth. The switch came because Missouri was home state to the man in the White House, Harry Truman, whose daughter launched the "Mighty Mo."

Originally, red lights illuminated the CEC. Ironically, studies showed they made sailors too hostile and jumpy for a war room. The lights were changed to blue, which gives off an eerie glow but one that is better for cool-headed decision-making.

As Hess walked about his 887-foot-long responsibility, he said if he had to do it again, the ship would have been opened to visitors sooner. "People really want to see her. We waited seven months while we refurbished portions for opening. We could have given an earlier view of the ship while renovation was in progress.''

The Missouri operators found the public couldn't wait to board the historic vessel. There is no museum to walk through before going aboard as is planned for the New Jersey. But there is a Victory Store - in the form of a World War II Quonset hut because tourists like the 1940s look - for souvenirs on the pier.

About 75 percent of the exterior is open to the public. Internally, the "Life at Sea'' exhibit shows the ship from the crew's perspective - representative officer quarters, dining space, the pilot house and the flag bridge. Together, they represent about 300 yards of walking on five deck levels. That takes almost two hours.

And it's not an easy walk. Visitors go up and down ladders and squeeze through tight spaces. For those who can' t, an onboard facility will eventually provide virtual tours via computer screens.

There is plenty more to see but it will be a long time before all of the Missouri is open to visitors. On average, two new areas go public each year.

How long until it's finished? "The problem with a long- range plan,'' said Hess, "is I can tell you where we're going but not how long it will take to get there because most of it we're doing ourselves. We try to stretch every dollar." In addition to admission fees, the ship receives grants from various organizations.

Hess said his biggest disappointment is time. "I just cannot go fast enough. There is so much to do." But that's balanced by the upside - "Every day, the smiles and wows of our visitors. It never ceases to gratify all of us."

There is a lot of gratification. "The Missouri is currently Hawaii's No. 2 paid-visitor attraction, trailing only the Polynesian Cultural Center."

The Missouri has advantages over the New Jersey. The Japanese surrendered on a "Mighty Mo" deck and the ship is moored barely 1,000 yards from the inspiring USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor. That means a visitor can stand where World War II ended and see where it started for the United States.

Eventually, the Missouri will be moved about a half-mile farther from the sunken ruin of the Arizona because the National Park Service is concerned the Missouri will overshadow its free Arizona tour.

Hess was hired to inspect the New Jersey before it was towed from Bremerton, Wash., to Philadelphia by the same captain and towboat that brought the Missouri from Bremerton to Hawaii. Hess inspected the "Big J" after the trip, declaring nothing was damaged in transit.

"The decks of the Missouri were in better shape than the New Jersey. Paint jobs were about the same - grim. The interior of the New Jersey was in better shape than the the Missouri,'' said Hess.

It cost about $5 million to get the Missouri ready for tours, $1 million for the tow, another $1 million for refurbishing. The rest was for pier rental, staff wages, insurance and materials and promotions. Also, there were donated materials, a year's supply of paint, for instance, and volunteer labor. Annual operations run about $5 million, some 80 percent of which comes from admissions.

In addition to tours, the Missouri is popular for wedding receptions, parties and overnight camps for children. The kids learn about the ship, are assigned chores, sleep in bunks and have to stand watch like sailors.

The New Jersey has a similar overnight program planned, said Pat Jones, co-founder of the Home Port Alliance, the organization that brought the "Big J" to South Jersey where getting the Camden pier ready is a bigger obstacle than refurbishing the ship. The schedule calls for visitors to walk decks and see some interior space by Labor Day 2001.

The New Jersey also will be opened to the public in phases over several years.

It won't be easy, predicted Hess, but it can be fun and rewarding. "Ships have personalities and need love. If it's just a job, it's the wrong job. The `Big J' has a great personality - she's a beauty."

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