During the rainy weekend of Saturday, August 11, 2018, as massive flash floods swept through Bergen County, New Jersey, a group of vandals broke into the USS Ling, a World War II-era submarine that sits on the banks of the Hackensack River. According to NorthJersey.com, hatches throughout the sub were forced open, allowing water to rush in and flood the interior. Worse yet, four plaques were stolen from the property, which paid tribute to the 52 subs that were lost during the war.
The Ling becoming the scene of a crime is just the latest act in a series of misfortunes that turned this once-proud piece of naval history into a sad site caked with rust and scarred by corrosion. The vessel was supposed to honor the United States’s proud military tradition, while serving as an educational showpiece for Hackensack area residents. Over the last few years, however, acts of both nature and bureaucracy have left the ship quite literally stuck in the New Jersey mud.
Construction began on the Ling in November 1942 at the Cramp Shipbuilding Company in Philadelphia; the craft was officially commissioned in June 1945 at the Boston Navy Yard. By then, though, the final shots of World War II were being fired, and the Ling made just one patrol in the Atlantic before the conflict was officially over.
The 312-foot-long ship was kept in reserve after the war before being recommissioned in the 1960s, where it was used as a training vessel in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. Rather than send the sub to a scrap pile, the Navy donated it to members of the local Submarine Memorial Association in 1972, who placed it in Hackensack, New Jersey, to serve as the main showpiece of the New Jersey Naval Museum—which otherwise consisted only of a trailer containing photos and other Navy memorabilia, as well as a few pieces of artillery displayed on the grass in front of the ship.
For a $12 entrance fee, you could roam the ship’s cramped hallways to explore the Ling’s engine room, walk through the crew’s sleeping quarters, and come face-to-face with a torpedo launcher. There was even an ice cream maker onboard, a common amenity on WWII submarines. One of the perks of captaining the ship was also apparently being in charge of choosing which flavor to make.
Though the Ling never had the big city money or pristine polish of the USS Intrepid—which is docked just about 15 miles away on Manhattan's West Side—it was a reasonably priced way for locals to explore a piece of naval pride in their own backyard.
Until Hurricane Sandy literally cut the Ling off from land in 2012.
“The storm kind of shifted or broke the connection between the dock and the boat,” Captain Hugh Carola, program director for the Hackensack Riverkeeper—a nonprofit environmental organization aimed at preserving the Hackensack River—tells Mental Floss. “There’s no way to safely and correctly access the boat from the shore anymore.”
The ship briefly reopened for tours following a cleanup effort, but in 2015 it was deemed inaccessible and permanently closed when the already damaged pier finally broke away from the shore. With its centerpiece out of commission, the museum—which still owns the ship itself—closed up shop as well.
Sadly, that was just the beginning of the Ling’s problems. Over the years, the river around the ship has filled with silt, leaving only 3 feet of water in the region at low tide. “The river has silted in so much over there, there hasn’t been any vessel past the Court Street bridge, I believe, since the Ling was put there,” Carola explains.
Complicating matters further, the land the museum occupied is being redeveloped. It was originally the property of the Borg family, owners of The Record newspaper, who leased the space to the museum for $1 a year. But when the family sold the paper and decided to redevelop the 20 acres of land, the museum’s lease was terminated. Demolition on the site will begin in September 2018; the museum packed up its remains and left in mid-August, according to NorthJersey.com. The museum hopes to find a new home, but since the sub is technically still in the river, it’s on public land—and no one is quite sure how to proceed.
“Hackensack has no jurisdiction,” Carola tells Mental Floss. “Private owners have no jurisdiction, because they don’t own where the boat is sitting. That’s a public trust resource. That’s tide land. You and I own that.”
So why can’t the Ling just be moved? Well, it’s complicated.
Tug boats and barges likely wouldn’t be able to get to the ship’s location in the shallow river waters. And even if they could, dealing with the nearby Court Street Bridge would be another hurdle. If, by some miracle, all the logistics worked out, Carola questions whether the Ling itself could even float at this point due to its deteriorated condition. It seems like every possible solution runs into a problem that puts it just out of reach.
“If you want to take it out in pieces, hopefully to reassemble it someplace else, that could be done,” Carola says. “But, then again, you have to—what?—create a temporary shipyard to prevent oil and whatever fluid might still be in the boat from getting into the Earth. And who’s going to pay for all that?”
Even officials for the city of Hackensack, home to the Ling since the early 1970s, question whether or not this piece of history will be able to find a happy ending.
“We appreciated the significance of the site, but it’s become a liability at this point, and that’s a shame," Albert Dib, city historian and director of redevelopment for the City of Hackensack, told The New York Times.
Malcolm A. Borg, whose father leased the land to the museum in the 1970s, echoed Dib’s grim assessment while pointing out the complex bureaucracy of the situation, telling The New York Times: “It's tragic—it’s rusting through in a number of places. It would take a lot of permits to get that boat out of there.”
In addition to local government and private business, the community itself has been involved in the fight for the Ling with a GoFundMe campaign that launched in June 2017. It was started by the folks behind the New Jersey Naval Museum to help raise money for the restoration and the preservation of the discarded sub, but after more than a year online, the campaign has raised just over $20,000 of its $100,000 goal.
“Nobody cares about it,” Les Altschuler, vice president of the Submarine Memorial Association, told The New York Times.
While Altschuler may believe that no one cares about the ship, it doesn't seem as if anyone is looking to make an aggressive move to get rid of it, either. "We know it's important,” Bob Sommer, a spokesman for Macromedia, which owns the Record property, told NorthJersey.com. “Of course, it's under consideration as possibly part of the landscape."
As if there wasn’t enough stress surrounding the Ling, now locals have to wait for authorities to make progress finding the people who vandalized the ship. “It adds an additional burden of time and resources that this group so desperately needs,” Gilbert De Laat, the New Jersey Naval Museum president, said. “It’s unfortunate that someone took this fragile situation and made it worse.”
Despite hurricanes, vandals, and a multi-million-dollar land deal threatening its very existence, the ship seems to be staying put for now. Whether you want to call it resilient or stubborn, the USS Ling continues to be a staple of Hackensack—though probably not in the way anyone intended.