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Lessons I Learned from New Jersey

Posted May 02, 2024

Byron King

By Byron King

Lessons I Learned from New Jersey

Sean Ring asked if I had an article for you, which works nicely because there’s something right up his old alley. That is, a couple of weeks back, Sean discussed how he’s originally from New Jersey. But eventually, he fled the Garden State to travel, work abroad, see the world, get married, and have a family. Now, Sean lives in northern Italy. 

So, Sean is gone, but New Jersey remains. And I just visited the place, meaning both the jurisdiction and the battleship of the same name; yes, I visited the old USS New Jersey (BB-62), a museum vessel usually berthed at Camden, except not just now. 

I had some business near Newark, so I flew over. And on the ground, I had a rental car, so I drove down to Philadelphia to see the mighty warship, currently in drydock at the Philadelphia Ship Repair facility, part of the North Atlantic Ship Repair Group. 

Right away, we have an investment lesson, if not a lesson about life, which is to seize your opportunities. And definitely, I’ve never seen a 55,000-ton battleship up on blocks in drydock. That’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing, I suspect, so I went on the Battleship New Jersey website, bought my ticket, and packed my gear for an industrial site visit. 

pub Your editor at Drydock #3, Philadelphia Ship Repair company, with Battleship New Jersey in the rear.

Note: There may be a few tour tickets left for visits later in May, but you should hurry if you want to see this ship from the underside, looking up.

Let’s Discuss Battleships

The Rude is mostly an investment-oriented letter, so I’ll offer economic and industrial-oriented comments as we proceed. But it’s all going to filter through the lens of battleships. Don’t worry, though; it’ll be fascinating. And I’ll show photos because I know how much our readers love photos. 

pubImage courtesy of Battleship New Jersey Museum, Camden, NJ.

Battleship New Jersey is normally tied to a pier in Camden, across the Delaware River from Philadelphia. There, it’s been a museum for over twenty years. On a clear day, you can look down and see the ship when you fly in or out, north of Philadelphia International Airport.

Congress authorized the construction of the battleship in 1939, pre-World War II, because people back then knew that something really, seriously bad was coming down the line, and they had to prepare. The keel was laid in 1940 in the former Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, which closed in the 1990s but is now reopened and under private ownership. So, from its birthplace to the present, we’re talking about the very same locale.

Another way to state things is that the institutional Navy built the USS New Jersey when the government owned and operated big industrial facilities like shipyards. And yes, the Navy still runs what it calls “public shipyards,” e.g., Portsmouth, NH, Puget Sound, WA, and Pearl Harbor, HI. But these sites only repair ships and submarines, all of which are built elsewhere.

Along these lines, it’s worth noting that except for submarines, there’s very little design-build capability left in the Navy or anywhere else within the federal government. Heck, there’s a scary paucity within the government of what’s called “technical authority” over complex systems. Even program supervision and contract oversight are problematic. It’s why, say, SpaceX outdoes NASA.

The Navy launched the hull of New Jersey on December 7, 1942, one year to the day post-Pearl Harbor. Then, the shell underwent about eighteen months of completion work in and out of Drydock #3, where she presently sits again for repairs.

Important lesson here: Big, complex things take time to design, arrange for long-lead components, and then build and test. This pertains to battleships, to be sure; but the same idea also applies today, for example, to the politically mandated reboot of our nation’s energy grid and transport system. In other words, and not to put too fine a point on it, anybody who says that the U.S. (let alone the world) will somehow transition to, say, electric vehicles or be “net-zero” for carbon by 2035, or 2040, or even 2050 doesn’t know what they’re talking about.

Meanwhile, if you think that your country will one day go to war, you should never stop planning for exactly that, and I mean planning over decades. Because wars require industrial facilities like shipyards, and much else. Plus, you need steel and other metals, plants that build machinery, and armies of trained workers who can do things like bend and shape materials, install pipe and wire and engines, and generally build ultra-complex systems of systems.

Indeed, you don’t fight and win wars with a service economy. You fight and win wars with an industrial economy, because decisive military power is the first derivative of energy and industrial power. And de-energized, deindustrialized countries don’t win wars; they lose them. Ask a Ukrainian.

Welcome Home, New Jersey!

At any rate, after two decades of floating next to her pier in Camden, this is the year – 2024 – to bring New Jersey in for a drydock period, the first since the early 1990s.

The idea is to remove the crud from the hull, take the paint off and get down to the bare metal, inspect for leaks or other issues like corrosion, and give the outside a new coating for the next thirty years or so. Perhaps of interest to some readers, the total thickness of several layers of marine-quality paint on New Jersey will be about twelve times what you have on your car.

In late March, the battleship was towed down the Delaware River towards its temporary repair destination, carefully timed with the tides so as to move safely beneath a major highway bridge. No Baltimore-type accidents for this noble ship!

Then, the engineers and marine architects pumped some nice, wet river water into the ballast tanks to trim the ship properly for moving into drydock.

pubNew Jersey pushed and towed, stern first, into Drydock #3. Fox29 screenshot.

And definitely, there’s nothing easy about a parking job like this.

pub Bring her in, and don’t bump into anything. Fox29 screenshot.

Once the ship was parked, exactly and to the last inch over the top of massive concrete blocks, the drydock workers closed a cofferdam and then drained the water. The ship settled down onto new foundations for the maintenance period.

pub Blocks carefully arranged to hold the ship along its keel structures. Courtesy USA Today.

The timeframe and budget for all of this work is two months (April and May), at a cost of over $10 million, every dime of which had to be raised by the Battleship New Jersey Museum and Memorial. That is, no U.S. Navy budget money went into the kitty for repairs. The museum is on its own.

And to be clear, $10 million is a lot of money, especially when you don’t have it. So just the fundraising was a long process of asking, asking again, and asking some more. Indeed, the sale of tour tickets for the drydock is what brought in the last million-or-so bucks: that, plus selling hunks of scrap teak wood from the deck, and even tiny bottles of hull rust as souvenirs. 

pub Teak wood and bottled rust for sale; USS New Jersey.

Down in the Drydock

For the drydock visit itself, the trip to the base of the structure began with a walk down 150 concrete stairs.

pub Down we go for 150 steps. BWK photo.

Everything about this ship is massive, like the four manganese-bronze screws and the twin rudders that are each larger than a typical house.

pubTwin rudders, with people for scale. Big! BWK photo.

Here’s another view of those rudders, with the screws in the same view.

pub Four screws, two rudders; everything about this ship is big. BWK photo.

And yes, we walked beneath the hull, with 55,000 tons of steel overhead, but it was all sitting on those concrete blocks, with about a foot of wood on top of them, squeezed down to about nine inches.

pub Your editor, crouching beneath 55,000 tons of steel. BWK photo.

Looking up from the floor of the drydock, the ship itself looms high overhead, and that’s just the view to the main deck, with no topside structures visible in the picture.

pub Grand Canyon of Battleship New Jersey in drydock. BWK photo.

And no tour is complete without a shot looking straight towards the bow of this immense ship.

pub Looking at the bow of the battleship from atop the drydock cofferdam. BWK photo.

To end the tour, here’s a shot of your editor with the absolutely awesome, truly outstanding, endlessly energetic curator of the Battleship New Jersey Museum, Ryan Szimanski, star of many YouTube videos. To whom all battleship fans owe a debt of gratitude.

pub Your editor with Ryan Szimanski, curator of the museum. BWK photo.

Final Thoughts

From bow to stern, and every inch in between (887 feet, 7 inches, per spec), a World War II era battleship like USS New Jersey was, in its time, one of the most complex machines ever built. Sure, in a military sense, battleships like this are obsolete now. They’re costly to operate, and we live in an age of hypersonic missiles.

Still, the fact remains that whatever might be the standard of today, back then battleships were the pinnacle of human engineering. And in that respect, it’s no stretch to say that the ideas, attitudes and design philosophies that went into battleships remain timeless. That is, when you want to build difficult things and work at the very edges of knowledge and technical capability, you put your best people and resources into the project. You don’t skimp.

Consider how only the very best materials and machinery went into a battleship: the best steel in the frames and plates, let alone the armor plate; the best electrical equipment; the best piping and steam systems; the best guns; the best of you-name-it. And, of course, ships like the USS New Jersey reflect phenomenal quality at every level, in terms of human skills that range from designers and naval architects to welders and countless other trades and crafts.

And let’s dive even deeper into the industrial legacy of a naval program that gave the country a ship like the USS New Jersey. The hull that slid down the launch-way and cut water in 1942 was the culmination of a long march of technology, with deep roots that date back to the 1880s, if not before (long story).

In terms of scale, it’s worth recalling that the Navy spooled up just this one battleship program (out of many other armaments programs) right before the war, beginning in 1939. Until the end of the conflict in 1945, the U.S. built six of these gigantic vessels: USS Iowa, New Jersey, Wisconsin, and Missouri, and two unfinished ships that were never commissioned, USS Illinois and Kentucky.

This all happened in the late 1930s and early 1940s in a country with a population of about 140 million and an economy emerging from the Great Depression. So it’s not unfair to ask: Can the country do anything even remotely similar today? And if so, what sort of project might that be? And if not, then why not?

What’s missing today? What has changed so profoundly in the past 80 years? What has the country gained? What has it lost?

Deep questions, yes. But if you can wrap your head around issues like these, you’re well on your way to becoming one of the best investors ever to walk the waterfront, because you can see things that others have missed entirely.

With that, I wish you well.

Many thanks for subscribing and reading.

P.S.: Okay, if you insist. More shots of the USS New Jersey entering into drydock.

pub

Fox29 Screenshot.

And this:

pub

Fox29 screenshot.

And finally:

pub

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