Battleship New Jersey Museum Loses Its Heart-and-Soul Volunteer

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Russell Collins Jr. of Palmyra relates World War II experiences aboard the battleship New Jersey, BB-62, as a crewman. The excerpts are from an oral history interview he gave for the Battleship New Jersey Museum and Memorial shortly after the retired Battleship New Jersey Museum and Memorial

CAMDEN – The heart of the battleship New Jersey museum has stopped beating.

Its throb belonged to Russell Collins Jr., the last museum volunteer who served as a Navy sailor on the ship during World War II.

Collins, 92, died of cancer complications a few days before Christmas. A funeral service for the Palmyra man was held late last month on board the retired ship, now the Battleship New Jersey Museum and Memorial.

“He was the heart and soul of the museum and will absolutely be missed,” museum executive director Philip Rowan said of the jovial, outgoing, devoted volunteer and storyteller who worked two days a week on the museum’s restoration crew and sometimes spoke at major shipboard events.

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A gun-firing salute was performed across the bow for Collins by members of Vietnam War Veterans of America, Chapter 899 of Bordentown Township. Ship bugler Nan LaCorte played taps to end the service.

Collins, who was never without his USS New Jersey (BB-62) cap, had been a museum volunteer since 2000 when the Navy donated the nation’s most militarily decorated battleship as a museum for the Camden Waterfront. He volunteered mainly in the ship’s tool room, distributing tools to others to use for ship repairs or to build displays and renovate tour areas.

Collins served on board the ship during and after World War II, from 1943 to 1946, as a machinist mate in the steamy 100-degree plus temperatures of Engine Room No. 1 in the bowels of the ship. When the crew was called to battle stations, he was first a topside gunner and then an ammunition loader in the bottom deck of the multistory No.1 gun turret, which carries the ship’s largest gun barrels.

In early 1944, he was among the original crew of more than 3,000 who sailed into the Pacific Ocean when the New Jersey joined the Seventh Fleet as its flagship during the war, island-hopping to bombard the enemy or providing firepower to protect ships in the fleet.

Fellow volunteers and museum employees said they looked forward to his scheduled days on board — when he brought his sea stories, knowledge of the ship, and jokes — and to the Wednesday crew luncheons he rarely missed at Connie Mac’s Irish Pub in Pennsauken.

“He did his part to help America win the war and to help the ship earn nine battle stars during World War II,” restoration crew member John Maher said in a eulogy at the funeral service attended by nearly 100 people.

“I met him on my first day joining the museum crew and always looked forward to being with him after that. He would point out where his bunk was on the ship; talk about Admiral ‘Bull’ Halsey, who was on board during part of the war as the flag officer; surviving a typhoon at sea when three other fleet ships were lost; and the kamikaze attacks,” recalled Maher.

“This was Russ’s ship, and he cared for it like it was his own,” Maher added, giving an example.

“One day there was Russ cleaning up a spot on a lower deck floor where someone else had dropped some paint. I told him why bother because no one would notice it, but he replied, ‘I would notice it.'”

“This was not only Russ’s ship, but Russ was the ship,” said restoration volunteer John Windfelder, “and we all have been blessed to spend the last 17 years with him as a fellow shipmate and friend.”

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Collins often referred to the ship as his second home and a “grand old lady,” fondly speaking of it as a female, as most sailors do of their ships.

“If you went to war, you wanted to be on one of the biggest ships, and she is a big ship and a great ship. She took us to war and brought us home. Not every sailor could say that,” Collins said last month at a Pearl Harbor anniversary ceremony aboard the Iowa-class ship that’s almost three football fields long.

Born and raised in Camden, Collins left his trade job as a welder building ships at the former New York Shipbuilding Corp. in Camden to join the Navy rather than be drafted by the Army during the war because, as he used to say, “you got three square meals a day and a dry bunk.”

Collins’ illness prevented him from working on the ship in recent weeks, but he still attended events on board, rode in a Philadelphia parade, and made it to the luncheons because fellow volunteer Windfelder drove him there.

“As soon as I walked into the door (of Collins’ house), I had to give him a report on what had been done on the ship that day,” his buddy Windfelder said of his recent visits.

Collins sometimes led ship tours over the years, peppering his talk with wartime stories that captivated visitors. He attended its major events and often tossed memorial wreaths into the Delaware River from the ship’s port side during Pearl Harbor commemorative ceremonies on many a Dec. 7 and on Memorial Day.

In Courier-Post interviews, Collins relished telling his sea stories, including one about Halsey getting into the canteen line just like other sailors did to buy items at the ship’s store.

“A ship’s officer came down and tried to start his own line because the one we were in was so long. Halsey called him over and told him in no uncertain terms where the end of the line was,” Collins said with a laugh.

Regarding the typhoon the fleet got caught in a week before Christmas in 1944, Collins said he headed topside from his engine room briefly to an upper deck to see the ship being tossed around by 90-foot waves and up-to-150 mph winds in a storm that lasted three days.

He described mountains of water engulfing the bow of the New Jersey, waves swamping the lower of two forward gun turrets holding the largest U.S. naval guns ever made.

“The ship took a nosedive. I didn’t know if it (the bow) was going to resurface, but it finally did,” he recalled.

Collins will be buried Thursday at 10:30 a.m. in the Brig. Gen. William C. Doyle Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Wrightstown.

Collins’ last few weeks of life were active on and off the ship, despite his need to use a wheelchair most of the time.

He did not miss the last Pearl Harbor ceremony, held two days early on Dec. 5, and was able to walk to the rail to toss a memorial wreath with another World War II veteran.

Then on Pearl Harbor Day, Dec. 7 , he came for the first firing of a returned and newly restored 40 mm anti-aircraft gun — bigger than the 20 mm one he manned at his first battle station in 1944. That was the last time Collins saw his beloved ship.

Steve Sheehan, vice chairman of the museum board of trustees and a former New Jersey crewman in a later era, said Collins had a “magnetic personality that lit up a room” and will be missed.

Charlie Stewart, one of three remaining World War II veterans also serving as museum volunteers, agrees.

“The world has lost one of the good guys.”

Carol Comegno: @carolcomegno; 856-486-2473; ccomegno@gannettnj.com