Camaraderie. It’s what brings dozens of volunteers to the Battleship New Jersey on a cool, dreary morning, and turns it into a cheerful, festive occasion.
A handful of docents wait in the visitor’s center for a scheduled tour group. They tease, laugh and trade stories. They are retired school teachers and superintendents, widowers, and lifetime service members. But all echo the same sentiment — it is the spirit of friendship that brings them back week after week.
Dave Wetherspoon jokes that he didn’t volunteer for the battleship, he was drafted. A friend he worked with for Home Port Alliance when the ship was gifted to Camden used him as a resource for naval information, eventually asking advice about setting up volunteer groups. This is his tenth year volunteering for the ship.
Wetherspoon, who is referred to as “The Chief” by his fellow docents, spent 30 years in the Navy, serving on seven destroyers, as well as battleships and auxiliary ships as a Senior Chief Sonar Technician. Being back on a ship after retiring is “frustrating,” he says with a laugh.
Fellow docent George MacCullough actually served on the USS New Jersey in 1955 as a gunner’s mate, a mechanic who maintains the guns on board.
When the battleship anchored at the Camden Waterfront in 2000, MacCullough was there to unseal the doors and hatches at the first volunteer day in November. It was “very different” coming back onto the ship, he explained, because it was renovated in 1983 to make it into a “brand new modern warship.”
He said his own experiences on the ship were of little consequence, however, because “the things the ship has done are more important than individuals.”
Yet not everything about the ship is perfect. Rich Castro, another docent, explained that one of the problems facing the ship is that many of the original volunteers have declining health or have passed on. Replacing them is difficult. Bob Catando, a retired school superintendent, agrees that new volunteers are hard to come by. He was surprised to see a new docent recently, because new volunteers have fallen off.
Still, the regular volunteers are dedicated. Though 82-year-old Frank Brennan says he is “too old to do tours,” he runs the visitor’s center two days a week.
After being honorably discharged from the Navy reserves, Brennan got married. He and his wife enjoyed “50 beautiful years” before she passed away nine years ago. Brennan knew he needed something to keep him busy, so he volunteered at the battleship. It’s like being back in the service, he said, and he’s “having a good time.”
Deep in the battleship, a restoration crew works cleaning the cafeteria and readies canvas for hanging. Like Brennan, Joe Low Sr. began volunteering at the battleship when his wife passed away four years ago. She passed away in January and by February, he needed to “get out.”
Low recently worked with a crew that repainted all the chairs and tables in the cafeteria and they are now getting ready to hang canvas from the ceiling. “Wherever we’re needed, that’s where we show up,” he said.
One volunteer is wheelchair bound, Low said, but he paints and fixes as needed with the rest of the team. “This, to me, is comradeship.”
Unlike many of the other volunteers, Ed Komczyk jokes that he only served in the Boy Scouts, but his general interest in history drew him to the battleship a month or two after it opened for visitors. Also a member of the restoration team, Komczyk says that he has served as a janitor, painter and mechanic. He has completely torn out and re-established exhibits. He wants to “give visitors on board a nice experience.”
It is nice to be “giving back again… it’s my way to give back to the community,” he said, but it’s the camaraderie that keeps him coming back.
In addition to docents and restoration crews, the battleship boasts over 300 volunteers that put in 75,000-80,000 hours every year on 4-8 hour shifts, said Volunteer Coordinator Dan Farrell. Other volunteer capacities, include a curatorial team, speaker’s bureau, brass team, radio club and handful who work on the battleship’s bi-monthly publication, The Jerseyman.
The battleship volunteers received the Governor’s Award for Volunteerism in 2003 and there is an entire wing of the museum dedicated to their contributions. Farrell knows they are lucky to have a “close knit group of men and women who love this battleship” and bring “skills, blessings, time, effort and love” to the ship.