The bawdy side of life on the 'Big J'

Sailors left their marks while spending time aboard the most decorated battleship in U.S. history.
Sailors left their marks while spending time aboard the most decorated battleship in U.S. history.
Posted: August 19, 2013

The G-rated tour routes of the legendary warship are clearly marked with tape or paint.

They take visitors to awesome 16-inch guns, feared by enemies from World War II through combat actions in Korea, Vietnam, and Lebanon. They head to Tomahawk missiles, the navigation bridge, and the captain's quarters.

But visitors who come to the Battleship New Jersey for its monthly adult twilight tours are taken off the beaten track to see another side of the sailors' lives.

Thursday night, they eyed a 5-by-5-foot painting of a Navy boiler man posing, as the curator said, with two "anatomically correct" women - one of many risqué artworks tucked away in the 887-foot ship's hidden nooks.

They saw the photos of a Playboy bunny perched on the barrel of a big deck gun for a magazine photo shoot as sailors looked on before their 1968 deployment to Vietnam.

And they heard stories about "Line Crossing" ceremonies - a kind of lewd hazing of sailors crossing the equator for the first time - and about a seaman fatally stabbing another, then leaving his body in a dumbwaiter, oozing blood.

"It's part of the history of this ship," Lou Orth, 68, of Galloway Township, N.J., said after viewing the artwork. "These men were away from home before coed shipping."

Orth's wife, Pat, 66, rolled her eyes. "Boys will be boys," she said.

"Clearly, that won't be on anybody's front page," Trish Weber, 61, of Barrington, said when she saw one of the images.

She went with her husband, Jim, 66, who served in the Navy on the carrier Wasp from 1964 to 1970, and in the Coast Guard from 1981 to 2007. He didn't remember Playboy bunnies and off-color artwork during his service.

"We were picking up Gemini [space] capsules," Jim Weber said. "We may have had art like this, but I never saw it."

'A bit more explicit'

The images and stories are not for children. The 17 tour-goers had to be at least 21 years old and were offered an adult beverage at the end, as an orange-colored sunset silhouetted the Philadelphia skyline.

"With 55,000 men living aboard this ship during nearly every significant combat period in the 20th century, you are going to get some interesting artwork and stories you just can't share with everyone touring the battleship," said ship curator Jason Hall, who conducted the first tour last month. "So we are offering adults the chance to experience the ship in a bit more explicit way than our daytime tours."

In its heyday, "Big J," the most decorated battleship in U.S. history, was a floating city with a post office where sailors picked up 1,300 pounds of mail a day; a convenience store where they bought candy and toiletries; an operating room; sick bay; pharmacy; medical laboratory; dental office; mess hall; machine shops; and TV studio.

And, like a city, it also had graffiti or art, depending on the point of view. Dozens of pictures have been found. One of the cruder ones was drawn on a ceiling, hidden by pipes.

"We can't have little kids seeing that," Hall said.

"You can't put a fig leaf on that?" asked Bernadette Hunter, 67, of Cherry Hill, who was there with her husband, Bob, 70.

"The sailor art is all over the ship," Hall said in an interview. "Some of it on the public-tour routes is G-rated. It had to be approved by officers."

But the sailors got away with more in out-of-the-way places, such as the engine room, which is largely off-limits for tours involving children because of the adult-themed art - usually depicting scantily clad women.

"It's typical military art," Bob Hunter, an Army veteran, said after viewing the picture of the boiler man and his girlfriends. "It's the same subject," he added with a laugh.

Other more G-rated art portrays ultramasculine figures, mythical half-man-half-beast figures, or images of sailors simply doing their jobs.

"I become an art curator and have to preserve this art," Hall said. "It's unique to the ship and has been left behind as part of its story."

The quality of the art was "all over the map," Hall said. "Some was childish, some well-executed.

"Sailors would even commission others who were talented. A few artworks were done by the same sailor-artist."

Miss New Jersey

Along with the images, the ship, built at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in 1942, has its share of colorful stories.

Visitors were surprised to hear of the 1968 Playboy photo shoot, which was intended "to improve the morale of the sailors," Hall said.

And most of them had never heard of the bawdy ceremonies involving "Pollywogs" - sailors crossing the equator for the first time.

Photos show a Miss New Jersey beauty contest, judged by the captain, where the sailors were dressed in gowns and forced to shave their legs.

They later were required to crawl from the stern to the bow while members of the crew who had earlier crossed the equator smacked them with short pieces of fire hose. Sailors who completed the "Line Crossing" hazing received the title "Shellbacks."

A serious side

Though the men had their share of fun, life aboard the New Jersey could also be deadly serious. One seaman - the ship's only onboard combat fatality - was killed by shrapnel from an enemy shell that hit the side of one of the turrets during the Korean War.

Another sailor was stabbed to death with a mixing blade from a soft-serve ice cream machine in the 1980s in a dispute over $20. His body was left in a dumbwaiter, where it was found by his best friend.

The tour "has been fabulous," said Bernadette Hunter. "It's what you expect with men at war cooped up on a ship."


Contact Edward Colimore at 856-779-3833 or ecolimore@phillynews.com.


 

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