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Historic Naval Ships conference brings leaders from nation, Australia to Camden

CAMDEN — The visitors were enthralled as they toured five decks inside one of the three largest gun turrets on the now-retired Battleship New Jersey.

They could load dummy powder bags into elevators, turn levers and push buttons as they simulated raising projectile ammunition — almost as tall as a man — to the top of the turret for loading. Later, they squeezed a trigger below deck to simulate the firing of three 50-caliber topside guns, whose long barrels loom over the main deck.

These visitors to the Turret II Experience tour last week were not just any tourists, however. They were leaders of historic naval ship museums from around the U.S. and Australia who came to the Battleship New Jersey Museum and Memorial on the Camden Waterfront as part of a four-day Historic Naval Ships Association conference.

“I think the visitor access to the interior of this ship stands out and as far as the Turret II Experience, none of the other museums have it and we all kind of envy it,” said Mike Weidenbach, curator of the USS Missouri, an Iowa-class sister ship of the New Jersey in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

“Businesswise, we are doing well and this year we had our 5 millionth visitor. Because of the weather, we’re open year-round,” Weidenbach said of the Missouri — the ship aboard which the Japanese surrendered to Allied Forces to end World War II.

The New Jersey museum co-hosted the convention with Philadelphia’s Independence Seaport Museum, where the Spanish-American War cruiser Olympia and submarine Becuna are moored as museums.

Nearly 75 members attended from the association, which represents 125 museums worldwide with 185 ships.

The World War II aircraft carrier Intrepid in New York City and the postwar carrier Midway in San Diego are the most successful museum ships in the U.S.

The Midway is the most visited ship in the world. It has a wing of 29 planes and receives many foreign visitors, as the most successful ships usually do.

The sailing ship Cutty Sark in Greenwich, England, is the most successful in the world, according to HNSA members.

“Both the Intrepid and Midway are destinations — the Intrepid attracting New York City tourists and the Midway in a great weather location all year and near an active naval base,” said Jeffrey Nilsson, HNSA executive director.

But there is more to success than just location, he said.

“One of the key factors is to have strong business and marketing plans, to stick with it and to actively generate funds,” Nilsson said. “You don’t just open and people come.”

The Midway, for example, always gets exposure during nationally televised San Diego Chargers football games when cameras pan the city.

The Olympia, flagship of Commodore George Dewey, is one of the ships treading water because the seaport museum cannot afford to keep it, despite spending $5 million on repairs.

Groups in San Francisco and South Royal, S.C., are vying for the deteriorating steel-hulled ship, but the Navy will decide where it goes.

“Right now we are trying to save the Olympia,” Nilsson said.

“It hasn’t been pulled out of the water (for hull repair) in 65 years, so you can imagine the rusting problems.”

Mac McLaughlin, a retired Navy admiral and president of the Midway museum, said he has a $20 million budget and a staff of 230 full- and part-time workers, plus 700 active volunteers.

“It’s our location, a supportive Navy town and great volunteers that make it successful,” he said.

The smaller battleship North Carolina, in Wilmington, N.C., also is quite successful.

The North Carolina’s executive officer, Terry Bragg, credited its success to operation of the museum as a business and it being the most historically accurate World War II ship. The museum attracts approximately 210,000 paid admissions a year but more than 300,000 visitors total when sponsored events are included.

Nilsson said the New Jersey is “doing the best humanly possible” in a difficult economy, offers excellent services and has good marketing and business plans.

The museum has pared its staff by more than 50 percent and cut its budget in half in recent years. Partial aid was restored by the state Legislature this year, but the museum is working to implement a plan to become self-sufficient in a few more years.

Last week marked the first time the New Jersey — the most militarily decorated Navy battleship with a combined 19 campaign stars in World War II, the Korean War, Vietnam War, the Beirut Crisis and in the Persian Gulf — hosted the ship museums conference.

“The whole idea is to network with other ship museums to help solve problems and to learn from one another,” said the New Jersey’s curator, Jason Hall.

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