Battleship New Jersey taking aim at history

Philip P. Rowan, CEO of the Battleship New Jersey, in front of gun turrets on the main deck of the warship at the Camden Waterfront.

At the height of World War II, the battleship New Jersey was given a new mission: to protect U.S. aircraft carriers against Japanese suicide bomber attacks.

Equipped with an arsenal of firepower, 40mm quadruple antiaircraft guns, the warship steamed with American fleets in the South Pacific, firing rounds to shoot down incoming enemy aircraft. Years later, it would play a similar role during the Korean War.  

Today, the whereabouts of only one of the 20 “Quad 40” Bofors gun mounts, an important part of the history of the most decorated battleship in U.S. history, are known. They were removed from the ship when it was retrofitted in the 1960s for service in Vietnam because they had become obsolete.

Officials believe the others were scrapped over the years and have launched a fund-raising campaign to get the remaining one to the Camden waterfront, where the warship is moored as a museum and memorial.

“History is dissolving in front of us,” said Philip P. Rowan, executive director of the Home Port Alliance for the USS New Jersey Inc., which operates the battleship. “Priceless artifacts are getting destroyed.”

Currently, the lone Quad 40 is on display on a concrete pedestal at the Broad Street entrance to the Navy Yard, where the New Jersey was built and launched on Dec. 7, 1942, one year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor.

Battleship officials are trying to raise $200,000 to obtain the Quad 40 and three other artifacts — the legendary 16-inch mammoth guns that could fire from miles away, roaring like a freight train and wiping out enemy soldiers.

“We want to get them here,” Rowan said during a recent interview on the deck of the battleship that stretches the length of three football fields. “They belong to New Jersey.”

Russell Collins, a member of the battleship’s first crew, recalled duty in the engine room as an  18-year-old machinist's mate third class in 1943. One of the biggest battles was a 1944 dogfight in the South Pacific often referred to as the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot,  for the huge losses inflicted on Japanese aircraft.

“We had a lot of gun power. We had guns everywhere,” recalls Collins, 91, of Palmyra.  “I don’t know how many planes we shot down.”

Collins, who volunteers on the ship twice weekly in the restoration tool room, said he would like to see the battleship get the Quad 40 and the other original guns for history’s sake. The 16-inch guns currently on the warship were made in the 1950s when the ship was readied for the Korean War.

“The fact that the ship had so many antiaircraft guns made it very valuable,” said author Paul Stillwell, a battleship expert and Navy lieutenant who was aboard the New Jersey when it was temporarily decommissioned after Vietnam. “The New Jersey, as a big ship, could accommodate a lot of them.”

So far, nearly $60,000 has been raised for the gun campaign, said Clark Perks, director of development for the battleship. The names of the 40 biggest donors will be engraved on a plaque that will be erected near the display on the Camden waterfront.

In exchange for one of the 16-inch guns, the Navy Yard has agreed to  give the battleship the Quad 40 to display  in Camden, said John Grady, president of the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corp. The 16-inch gun will be displayed at a new site, possibly near the Parade Grounds along Broad Street, he said.

“We all share in the rich legacy of the battleship New Jersey,” Grady said this week. “So many folks from the region  helped produce that great piece of history.”

Known as the “Big J, ” the battleship also saw duty in Vietnam and the Mideast before it  was decommissioned in 1991. It was moved to the Camden waterfront in 2000 and opened to public tours in 2001, and has had more than one million visitors. Today, it draws about 88,000 visitors a year, mainly local schoolchildren.

Declining visitors and decreasing state aid over the years have forced battleship officials to develop a more aggressive marketing strategy to boost attendance and revenue. That includes overnight visits, weddings,  cocktail parties, and other special events. The state provides about $1.4 million of the annual $4 million operating budget, with ticket sales and donations providing the remainder.

Rowan, who took over as executive director in 2012, has been on an ambitious mission to get the storied warship restored. A new coat of gray paint has been applied and work is ongoing to replace the teak decks, an expensive undertaking that will cost about $150 per square foot, or $8 million total.

Over the years, attractions have been added, such as an interactive digital exhibit that lets visitors simulate loading powder bags and pulling a lever to send dummy artillery shells to fire the guns. On New Year’s Day, the ship’s horn was re-sounded for the first time — using compressed air instead of the steam engines that would have been used when the ship was in active service.

In September, the Black Dragon Cafe (borrowing Black Dragon from the battleship’s nickname), is expected to open on the pier grounds to offer cheese steaks, hoagies, french fries, beer, and pizza, Rowan said. The area will include outdoor seating overlooking the river.

Perks said officials also have their sights on one day acquiring the remaining pieces of the warship’s 109-piece Tiffany silver collection. The ship has 45 pieces on display in the captain’s in-port cabin and the remaining pieces are on display at  Drumthwacket, the governor’s residence in Princeton. The complete set is valued at $1.4 million and is owned by the Navy.

With time running out, the first priority is obtaining the Quad 40 and the three original Turret One 16-inch guns that pummeled rounds in Iwo Jima and Okinawa. Perks said about $100,000 is needed before the museum can apply to acquire the 16-inch guns. The Navy will donate the 66-foot-long guns but the battleship must show that it has the funds to transport them.

Currently, the guns are at the Navy’s St. Juliens Creek Annex in Chesapeake, Va., Rowan said. New Jersey officials have been  told that the guns will be cut up for scrap if no one steps forward to take them.

The gun barrels, which weigh about 125 tons each, would be transported by either barge or train, Rowan said. One will be donated to the Mahan Collection, a museum in Basking Ridge, N.J., that collects trucks and historic vehicles, he said.

Rowan would like to have the guns at the New Jersey by December to reveal them to coincide with a commemoration planned in Philadelphia to mark the 75th anniversary of the New Jersey’s  launch.  

“They’re not in the best condition,” Rowan said. “It’s going to take a massive restoration.”

For more information on the 40 for the Quad 40 project, call 856-966-1652, Ext. 127, or visit www.battleshipnewjersey.org/40