Sailors “holy stone” the deck of USS New Jersey on July 19th 1943.

Sailors “holy stone” the deck of USS New Jersey on July 19th 1943. (Facebook)

(Tribune News Service) — Plank by plank, the deteriorating deck of the Battleship New Jersey on the Camden waterfront is being entirely removed and replaced from stern to bow.

Scattered portions of the 42,000-square-foot surface were repaired in 2005 and 2012, "but much of the deck was still original, and the steel underneath was rusting away," said Phil Rowan, CEO of the Homeport Alliance, the ship's nonprofit owner.

The alliance so far has raised $1.6 million of its $2 million share of the $4 million project; the other half is being paid for with federal, state, and county funds. Work began in 2020 and has continued through the worst of the pandemic, the extremes of the weather, and the daily challenge of getting a complicated, often noisy job done while the ship is open to visitors.

The crew of 12 to 15 union carpenters, floor layers, painters, and welders expects to finish work by the end of the year.

"It's a lot different from laying a residential floor," said Izaiah Redd, a union carpenter who lives in Camden. "But we're journeymen. We're a whole team. Show us the way and we'll get it done."

Said Jason Baker, a master carpenter from Cherry Hill: "Just being able to work on the battleship and to see something like this has been eye-opening to me. What we're doing, laying a deck, was [originally] done at the Navy Yard. With a lot more manpower!"

"The scope of the work is where the challenges come in," he said. "The welding, running power, putting up tents to keep weather out — there are a lot of logistics."

A floating fortress

Eleven stories tall and three football fields long, with nine 16-inch, 50-caliber guns, "Big J" was built at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in 2 1/2 years. Several thousand men and women, most of them from the Philadelphia area, finished the job nine months ahead of schedule.

When the New Jersey was launched on Dec. 7, 1942 — the first anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor — the Philadelphia region and the United States sent a message to the Axis powers, and Americans cheered.

This longest and most decorated of the four Iowa Class battleships, the New Jersey served during World War II as well as the Korean conflict, the Vietnam War, and the First Gulf War. The ship was decommissioned for good in 1991. Following a hard-fought grassroots and political campaign pitting North Jersey against South Jersey, the U.S. Navy awarded the battleship to Camden in 2000. It opened to the public a year later.

"The Navy has entrusted us to display this ship in her full magnificence," said Ryan Szimanski, the New Jersey's vice president of curatorial and educational affairs.

He's also the onscreen host and maker of 1,200 videos on the battleship's YouTube channel, which has 161,000 subscribers.

"We're attempting to educate the public, as well as preserve and restore the ship, with a tiny fraction of the staff the Navy would have used to do so," Szimanski said. "The deck was easily the most deteriorated part of the ship, and the most important to repair."

When Big J was in the South Pacific during World War II, a crew of 2,700 provided plenty of hands to regularly swab corrosive salt water and rain from the deck.

A Southeast Asian hardwood prized for its beauty, teak is no longer used by the Navy but is found on yachts and other private vessels because it is less slippery when wet than other materials and more durable, as well, said Szimanski.

He said he has been struck by the level of respect and affection for the ship in the Philadelphia region.

"Folks from around here built the ship," said Szimanski. "They have a sense of ownership. And of course, the New Jersey is the state's namesake ship.""subtype":"youtube Spells of stormy weather

Notwithstanding the affection for Big J in the Philly region and beyond — the ship has about 200 active volunteers who help with tours, events, and other duties — the museum has struggled to sustain attendance and has faced financial struggles. In 2012, amid rumblings from some North Jersey politicians that Big J ought to be relocated to Liberty State Park or Bayonne, the battleship introduced new exhibits and bolstered marketing. Then the pandemic forced it to shut down for much of 2020.

Szimanski started making and posting videos during the shutdown "so we could continue educating the public about the ship," he said.

Battleship New Jersey aims digital firepower at funds, attendance

Attendance has since rebounded to pre-pandemic levels of about 60,000 visitors annually, said Rowan, who has been active with the Homeport Alliance since 1998.

Counting events, including sleepovers for families, Scout troops and other organizations, "about 80,000 people visited last year, and we're working to get that number up to 100,000," Rowan said.

"We're gearing up a campaign to raise the last $400,000" for the deck restoration, he said.

A second fund-raising campaign will follow. The state is set to provide $5 million toward the $10 million cost of sending Big J to dry dock in Philadelphia to have its bottom repainted for the first time in more than 30 years.

The alliance hopes the work, which has not yet been scheduled, can be done in 60 days, said Szimanski.

Cutting costs, not corners

The alliance and the crew working on the deck are attempting to preserve as much of the pattern of the original teak deck as possible.

But in the 1980s, portions of it were replaced by laying half an inch of teak over an inch and a half of Douglas fir, and it became "a safety hazard," said Jack Willard, the battleship's director of sales and marketing.

"It basically turned to mulch," Szimanski said. "The deck was the most deteriorated part of the ship, and the most important to repair."

Much of the vintage teak has been salvaged and repurposed as pens, flag boxes, photo frames, and other desktop gift items, some of them made by volunteers, in the battleship's gift shop.

Rowan said the teak replacing it was purchased before the 2021 U.S. embargo on such imports from Myanmar and will make the deck easier to navigate for visitors with mobility concerns. It also will help insulate the lower decks from the heat of the sun and prevent water from seeping into and damaging the steel below.

"I've got a great crew on this job," said Mike Shannon, the project's general foreman.

His workers scour rust from the steel that lies below the deck and coat it with primer. Then they glue and rivet into place inch-thick panels of marine-grade plywood. The teak is glued and screwed into the plywood, and the openings are covered with plugs of teak and sealed.

"It's an honor to help maintain this ship," Shannon said. "There's a sense of patriotism on this job because of what the ship did for our country."

And union painter Mike Fitzmaurice of Stratford said: '"The best part is that someday I may be able to tell somebody I helped restore a ship that fought in so many wars and traveled all around the world."

(c)2023 The Philadelphia Inquirer

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