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As a social studies teacher, I’m constantly on the lookout for interesting historical sites. Many of my favorites have been discovered completely by accident, including one I spotted on my way to Cape May while crossing the Benjamin Franklin Bridge.
I looked down and was enthralled by the sight of a battleship moored on the Camden side of the Delaware River. I pointed it out to my adventure buddy, Jenn, and she enthusiastically replied, “Want to go?” Within minutes, we pulled up to the berthing area of the USS New Jersey. We felt a sense of awe as we took in the size of the massive warship, open to visitors thanks to Camden’s Battleship New Jersey Museum and Memorial, which offers a variety of guided and self-guided tours.
All aboard the Big J
We soon learned that the Big J, as she is nicknamed, was constructed at the nearby Philadelphia Navy Yard. As a matter of local pride, four additional inches were added to her overall length, making her the largest US navy battleship ever built, coming in at 877 feet and seven inches long.
Walking up the gangplank to the main deck, we made our way to turret #2. Climbing inside the heavily armored chamber, we examined the loading mechanism that allowed the three massive 16-inch guns to fire 2,700-pound armor-piercing projectiles approximately 23 miles. The 72-inch shells were propelled by six 110-pound bags of powder. It’s hard to fathom the devastating firepower these weapons were capable of unleashing.
Crawling through a small hatch in the deck, we clambered down a tight ladder and entered a compartment stacked floor-to-ceiling with bunks. We were impressed with the efficient though cramped use of space. Each bunk had a small storage area under the mattress for shoes, clothing, and personal items, including letters from loved ones back home.
The bunks were stacked three high with only a narrow walkway between sides. Visitors are invited to lie on a bunk, so I finagled my way up into the middle bunk, with brought an overwhelming sense of claustrophobia. At its peak, the Big J carried a complement of 1,921 officers and men.
Gazing down a row of open hatches gave the impression that the ship went on forever—a disorienting feeling. Luckily, there was colored tape on the floor directing us where to go. Sailors had the “bulls-eye,” a painted yellow rectangle on the wall, stenciled with numbers and letters that designated what deck a person was on, the frame they were located in, their position relative to the mid-line of the ship, and what the compartment was used for.
Moving along, we discovered one of the most interesting areas of the ship, a section where visiting veterans could autograph the wall stating their years of service, branch, and/or area of deployment.
A decorated history
A large room highlights the history of the three navy vessels named USS New Jersey. Scale models of the three ships compare their size and function. The original USS New Jersey (BB-16) was a battleship commissioned in 1906 that took part in Theodore Roosevelt’s Great White Fleet that circumnavigated the globe demonstrating US naval strength. She met the unglamorous fate of being sunk as a target ship for American bombers in 1923.
The Big J, USS New Jersey (BB-62), was launched on December 7, 1942. Her primary function was the bombardment of Japanese positions prior to amphibious lands and providing an air screen for American aircraft carriers with her anti-aircraft guns. The current USS New Jersey (SSN-796) is a Virginia class attack submarine being constructed at Newport News, Virginia. She is the first US navy sub designed to have a mixed-gender crew.
Following WWII, the Big J now moored in Camden saw service in both Korea and Vietnam. She was modernized in the 1980s to carry Tomahawk cruise missiles and Harpoon anti-ship missiles, and was last deployed during the Lebanese Civil War. She was decommissioned for the final time in 1991 and was donated to the Home Port Alliance (the nonprofit that restores and manages her) in 2001 for use as a museum ship. She received 19 battle stars for her service and is the most decorated battleship in the history of the US navy.
A floating city
One of the things that impressed us the most was that the Big J was a floating city, providing everything the crew would need including a mess hall, ship store, tv studio, metal shop, post office, barbershop, and medical facilities.
Making our way to the superstructure, we toured the captain’s quarters and the admiral’s quarters, where William “Bull” Halsey Jr. of WWII fame once directed fleet operations. Looking down on turrets #1 and #2 from the bridge provided an impressive view of the massive guns. Also of note was the battle con with its 17-inch-thick steel walls. This heavily armored area controlled the ship during combat operations.
Moving along, we were able to get a close-up view of the Big J’s modern armament, including Tomahawk cruise missile launchers and phalanx close-in weapon systems.
Returning to the main deck, we were also able to closely examine an Oerlikon 20mm cannon and a Bofors 40mm anti-aircraft gun. I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to sit at the twin 40mm and rotate the cranks that adjusted the elevation and rotated the platform, wondering what it was like to defend the fleet from enemy air attack.
As we exited the causeway to the dock, we were amazed to realize nearly three hours had flown by while touring the ship. Our unscheduled stop became one of our favorite memories from our trip to New Jersey. It was a thrill to explore one of the most powerful warships ever built and an honor to catch a glimpse of what life was like for the courageous sailors who defended our nation.
What, When, Where
Battleship New Jersey Museum and Memorial. $20-$40. Open every day from 10am to 5:30pm at 62 Battleship Place, Camden. (856) 966-1652 or battleshipnewjersey.org.
The Battleship New Jersey site has wheelchair-accessible, gender-neutral restrooms with baby-changing tables. The 45-minute main deck tour is accessible for wheelchair-users and service animals. The site offers sensory-friendly events on select dates; to organize a sensory-friendly group tour, email [email protected]. Visit their website for more information.
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