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A Gray Winter's Night

Why just tour the Battleship New Jersey when you can sleep aboard?

By Marshall S. Berdan
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, January 14, 2004; Page C02

One doesn't normally associate the aesthetically challenged city of Camden, N.J., with unbridled youthful excitement. But that's exactly what emanates from the crowd of kids -- many in Scout uniforms, all bearing overnight gear -- and adults emerging from a city garage into the winter air of the Camden waterfront. They've come from several surrounding states to spend a chilly winter's night, and it's made them giddy.

But then, they aren't here to sleep in New Jersey; they're here to sleep on the New Jersey, a World War II battleship, the longest ever built.

Visitors pose under the guns of the USS New Jersey in Camden. (Marshall S. Berdan)

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As they make their way toward the shadowy mass of the ship -- silhouetted against the skyline of Center City Philadelphia across the Delaware River -- the physical and historical majesty of this floating fortress seems to quiet the crowd. Launched on Dec. 7, 1942, the New Jersey went on to become the second most decorated ship in Navy history (after the carrier Enterprise), earning 19 battle stars in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and Beirut and the Middle East before being decommissioned in 1991. Eight years later it returned to the river where it was born as a permanent dockside museum.

By the time the group climbs the modern gangplank and reaches the expansive fantail (rear deck), a silence prevails. Above them, the New Jersey's towering superstructure tapers to a pinnacle of struts, antennae and poles. Looming beyond the campers are three massive barrels of the ship's rear gun turret. Clearly, Scouts, this is not going to be just another camp-out in the woods.

Since opening to the public three years ago, the New Jersey has served as a sort of portal to some of the so-called Greatest Generation's greatest challenges. For most visitors, the standard daytime tour transports them momentarily to the hardships and glories of the Battle of Leyte Gulf, the Marianas and Okinawa invasions. But the more intrepid can chow down in the New Jersey's galley, prowl its decks by night and bunk in its crew quarters.

These battleship sleepovers are called Overnight Encampments, and more than 20,000 young people and their accompanying parents and chaperons have signed on since the program began in 2002. Until recently, it was open only to Scouting and other civic groups (of both sexes) for whom shared berthing areas and communal bathrooms were no hardship. But now families and ad hoc groups are accepted -- as long as they include at least one minor over the age of 7 to satisfy the educational mandate established by the Home Port Alliance, the New Jersey's nonprofit civilian owner.

On the fantail, Encampment Director Doug McCray welcomes each group aboard. McCray will be in command all evening, but his first job is to pass each brigade of one-night sailors over to its respective officer of the deck. For the 13 boys and seven adults of Boy Scout Troop 207 from Gaithersburg Presbyterian Church, that would be Tom Jaskel, a retired Navy lieutenant.

Jaskel leads them to the oval hatchway under those awesome 16-inch guns and down into the New Jersey's well-lit -- and surprisingly well-heated -- interior (battleship gray, natch). After a quick overview of the POD (plan of the day), all rendered in military time (so-many hundred hours) and pointing out the "geedunk" (snack bar), onboard store and "head," he shows them to their berths and reminds them that dinner is served at "1900 hours." He pauses momentarily. "That's 7 o'clock."

Back out on the mess deck, the geedunk is doing a brisk business, catering to the needs of its perpetually hungry (i.e., adolescent) clientele. The five scoutmasters are called together and asked to provide volunteers for the jobs of food servers, flag detail and broadcast announcers. The last, two older boys, soon appear on the closed-circuit monitors nervously reading through the safety regulations. Jaskel himself repeats the main one: "No running! You will not hurt the ship; the ship will hurt you."

Duly warned, everyone returns to his berthing area for the mandatory abandon-ship exercise (a k a fire drill), the result of which is that everyone is soon back out on the fantail. After the drill comes evening colors: The flag is lowered to the taped accompaniment of a bugle.

The prime view of the Philly skyline over the starboard beam appeals to the more senior campers, but for the majority of rookie seamen, it's straight back down the hatch to join the quickly forming chow line on the mess deck. The line moves through the vast unused portions of the ship's kitchen, a warren of stainless steel, Formica and cast iron. Three volunteer KP attendants spoon out baked chicken breasts, rice and tossed salad onto black plastic plates.

At 2000 hours (8 p.m.), an announcement comes to muster once again on the fantail for a guided tour of the ship. Jaskel begins with a statistical overview of "The Big J," which, at 877 feet 7 inches, is indeed the single longest battleship ever built -- but just barely. (Its builders finessed it so that the New Jersey was three inches longer than its sister ships: the Iowa, the Missouri and the Wisconsin). The specs -- 45,000 tons of displacement, 212,000 horsepower, 2.5-million-gallon fuel capacity -- prompts a younger Scout to ask what mileage it gets. Jaskel is stumped. (Subsequent inquiries reveal the answer to be 0.0024 miles -- about 13 feet -- per gallon.)

The tour includes the combat engagement and communications centers, the machine shop, the bridge and the Tomahawk cruise missile launchers before ending in the relatively spacious wood-paneled cabins of the captain and admiral.

By now it's well past 2200 hours, but the geedunk is still open and doing a brisk business in popcorn, hot pretzels and nachos. But by the time taps airs scratchily over the PA system at 2300 hours, most campers are already in their bunks (three-tier "coffin racks"), though not necessarily ready to sleep. The ensuing darkness (there are no portholes on battleships) results in the expected disorder, punctuated by a few bangs and groans as elbows whack into walls and feet flail against lockers.

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