Mission underway to save submarine USS Ling after devastating flood in NJ river
By RODRIGO TORREJON | NJ Advance Media Group, Edison, N.J. | Published: March 2, 2020
EDISON, N.J. (Tribune News Service) — Gallon by gallon, with a submersible pump humming in the background, a group of veterans and military enthusiasts from all over the country have drained the hulking USS Ling, a World War II-era submarine berthed in the Hackensack River long thought to have been lost to flooding.
For a year and a half, as much as 14 feet of murky river water filled the hull of the 312-foot long, 250-ton vessel after vandals flooded the boat. The water filled every corner and crevice of the submarine’s innards, damaging radio and electronic equipment. Era-specific artifacts like mess kits, uniforms and bunks fully furnished with mattresses were also lost.
But by November, after months of work that included trudging around inside the submarine clad in wet suits, members of the Louisville Naval Museum Inc. have drained all but a few inches of water inside the boat’s main compartment. Once again, a person can walk into the submarine and take a glimpse into military history.
The mission, the group says, is to restore the Ling to its former glory and to put it on display in a Louisville museum as its showcase exhibit.
“It’s a little messy with river muck, but now you can just walk on board,” said Chris Kerrigan, spokesman for the group.
Since September, the group, with members from Indiana, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and New Jersey, have made trips to the submarine, in the river alongside River Street in Hackensack, to assess the damage and see about saving the Ling.
On the first trip in September, a small crew including Lewis Palmer arrived at the property adjacent to the ship, hopped on a small old dinghy with the markings of the Sleepy Hollow Fire Department and floated to the Ling, climbing aboard to see its condition.
Soon after, the crew donned wet suits and dove into the dark waters that sloshed around inside the submarine, exploring the interior of the boat to assess the situation. They found the main compartment was flooded with approximately 14 feet of water, Kerrigan said.
"It was pretty full,” he said.
But weekend after weekend, using a submersible pump, generators and an air compressor on loan from a Bogota concrete company across the river from the Ling, the team drained tens of thousands of gallons from the Ling, Kerrigan said.
Much of the water, which Kerrigan said was tested, was pumped back out into the river.
The group’s journey started in — of all places — a Facebook group that posted photos of the Ling with the caption: "Free to any home. Just tow it away.”
Palmer, who served in the U.S. Army for three years, saw the post and decided to do something to save the metal behemoth he’d never seen in person.
“I’m a sucker for a good story,” said Palmer, of Scottsburg, Indiana. “Once I read it and heard what happened and stuff like that it tugs at your heart strings. I’m just a common sense kind of guy. Everything we’ve done is just using common sense. I started to get involved and grew a group of people.”
The team includes an active duty Navy member who works on nuclear vessels and had the expertise to patch up a three-inch hole in the front of the Ling — and who, with help from the crew, even managed to bring the atrophied boat’s ballast tanks, which are responsible for submerging and surfacing a submarine, back to life.
After draining the boat, the crew used an air compressor to blow out the ballast tanks, a sign that maybe — someday — the submarine can float again.
“One of the biggest responses we got out of her, after 40 years, her ballast tanks responded,” Palmer said. “We blew them out. We got some holes to patch in them but once we weld those up, we believe she can float.”
Inside the Ling
On Saturday, a crew of nearly a dozen crossed the newly installed gang plank donated by a marina in Toms River, and onto the listing sub to continue the clean-up process by tossing damaged materials and power-washing the interior.
In 2012, Superstorm Sandy washed away the gang plank used for years to board the Ling.
Walking down the metal stairs into the boat, gripping railings wrapped in well-worn cords, the smell of rust and water-logged refuse wafts up. But, as one advances further down, past the light from outside, a world from decades ago reveals itself.
Lining either wall-like battered cylindrical shelves are torpedoes, all demilitarized. One of the torpedo’s propellers still spins if pushed. Artifacts - officers hats and an old typewriter - are strewn about, caked in mold and rust underneath the wire frames for beds where officers would sleep.
A thick line of filth runs along the top of the walls, marking the water line from the flooding. But ducking through a squat doorway, a time far gone comes alive again. There’s pots, pans and cooking utensils sit inside galley. In the mess hall, there’s tables marked with checkers and backgammon patterns for seamen pass the time.
A microphone juts out from a panel in a radio control room, one of the areas most damaged by the flooding. Underneath the conning tower is the control room, the heart of the ship, with gauges, meters and radar and sonar.
Roy Venckus, a member of the clean-up crew, traced his gloved hands along gauges and meters, pausing to clean them with a brass brush.
Venckus, 76, trained on the Ling in the early 1960s, and remembered loading the boat’s shower stalls with food - prioritizing snacks over cleanliness. He remembers sneaking beers onto the boat and the ice cream machine that submariners used for an underwater treat.
Venckus, who wore a Navy cap with “USS Ling” emblazoned on the front, said that when the team finishes cleaning up the boat, he vowed to put on his old Dixie hat and uniform shirt and ride the revived submarine along the East Coast down to its new home.
New life for the Ling
The Louisville Naval Museum’s efforts to rehabilitate the submarine marks a sharp turn in the Ling’s fortunes. Just a few months ago, there was little communication between the Louisville Naval Museum and the Submarine Memorial Association, the group that owns and maintained the Ling for more than 40 years and also operated the former New Jersey Naval Museum in Hackensack.
For decades, the USS Ling was the centerpiece exhibit of the museum, which was housed in a trailer on land feet away from the boat. In 2016, the lease for the land was terminated by Stephen Borg, the former publisher of The Record newspaper and owner of the property on which the museum sat.
In 1974, Borg’s grandfather had negotiated a deal to lease the land to the museum for $1 a year. The lease had been on a month-to-month basis since 1994.
After the Borgs notified the museum that the lease arrangement was ending, the Navy came in and took back artifacts it had loaned the museum. By fall of 2018, the museum had cleared nearly all of the rest of the remaining artifacts from the property.
More than a year later, Borg, by way of his company Fourth Edition Inc., gave the Louisville Naval Museum permission to go onto the property adjacent to the boat and get to work saving the Ling, said Bob Sommer, spokesman for Fourth Edition Inc.
“The simplest answer is yes,” Sommer said. “They have access to the property.”
It was the expertise evident in the group and the plan they seemed to have that made the difference to Borg and his company, Sommer said.
“They’ve got a record of doing this and seem to have a sense of what they wanted to do,” he said. “As opposed to others who might not have had this expertise, these experts do have that expertise. And it seems suited to be able to try to figure something out. Other people may have loved the boat. This entity, these people working on it now, clearly have the assets, the expertise and the ability to try to save the boat."
Communication between the Louisville museum and the Submarine Memorial Association has also been jumpstarted, said Palmer. Around two months ago, Leslie Altschuler, the vice president of the association, gave the group official permission to rehabilitate the Ling, Hackensack Police Capt. Darrin DeWitt said.
“We had a huge turnaround with the association,” said Palmer. “It’s kind of patched things up. They’re cooperating like night and day.”
When Palmer and his crew first boarded the boat, talks between the two groups were tense and slow going, said Les Altschuler, the association’s vice president. But when the association saw the crew of active duty military, veterans and maritime enthusiasts, it decided to trust the Louisville Naval Museum.
“Since then, we’re all on the same page,” he said. “Regardless of where it goes.”
The group’s endgame is to refurbish the Ling enough to float it south to New Orleans, at which point American Commercial Barge Line, based in Jeffersonville, Indiana, would take over and haul the submarine for free to one of its shipyards, said Palmer.
The group would then dry dock the sub and repair the hull, he said. Once the hull is repaired, the next step would be to restore the interior.
“That’s our goal, to restore,” said Palmer. “To bring her back to what she used to look like and display her.”
The final resting place, the group hopes, would be across the river from the shipyard, in a new naval museum in Louisville.
Raising money for the long and arduous revival of the boat has been a difficult, but steady-going task, Palmer said. The group set a goal of $10,000 to pay for getting the Ling to float once more. At a fundraiser dinner, where the group had raised $3,800, a benefactor told Palmer he’d write a check for the difference, he said.
Altogether, the group has raised nearly $20,000, though the estimated price tag for dry docking the boat is $1 to $2 million, while the barge-mounted expedition from Hackensack to New Orleans is expected to cost an estimated $1 million, he said.
Until then, every weekend or so, volunteers from all over join the core group of would-be naval saviors to power wash the boat and to fix it piece by piece. Eventually, Palmer and his crew hope to create a legacy befitting the well-loved submarine.
For Altschuler, one of the boat’s longtime stewards and a former Ling crew member himself, the progress already made is astounding. And he hopes, wherever the Ling is docked, it will be taken care of.
“We all agree on one thing," he said. “It’s not where the boat goes. It’s the fact that the boat gets saved. We want to save this submarine.”
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