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Scuttling History

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Scuttling History

Vandals destroy a memorial to an unheralded monument of U.S. submarine prowess. August 20, 2018
Arts and Culture

USS Ling—mottled gray, rust-stained, and listing ominously to port—has been a fading fixture on New Jersey’s Hackensack River for years. Now comes news that this floating memorial to America’s World War II submarine service has been deliberately flooded by vandals, leaving only the question of how best to dispose of the decaying warship once and for all. She deserves much better.

Ling went to war in the summer of 1945, long after America’s so-called fleet submarines had reduced Japan’s economy to ruins. What Germany’s U-boats failed to accomplish against the British—destroy the ability to wage war by severing vital supply arteries—America’s subs achieved spectacularly against the Japanese in the Pacific. It was hard and dangerous work; one in five Americans who went to war in submarines died, the worst fatality rate in the war. It’s a quirk of American naval history that submarines were never intended to be commerce-raiders in the first place.

Between World War I—which America entered in part to put an end to Germany’s rapacious submarine warfare—and Pearl Harbor, U.S. policy was to deploy submarines only as scouts for the Navy’s battleships, aircraft carriers, and other large, fast-surface warships.  Navy submarine design reflected this priority; the boats were large and fast, capable of covering long distances and able to move ahead of the fleet, hence their official designation as “fleet” submarines. Significant offensive operations were not anticipated.

Not long before Pearl Harbor, Washington expressly rejected the use of “unrestricted submarine warfare”—a euphemism for the no-warning attacks on commercial shipping that Germany was conducting against England. But, as the saying goes, nations go to war with what they have. And in the hours after the Pearl Harbor attack, all the U.S. Navy had left in the Pacific were three precious but vulnerable aircraft carriers—and 112 submarines, many obsolete, a fair number of the formidable fleet type, and all untouched by the Japanese air raid. Small surprise, then, when the U.S. Chief of Naval Operations issued a terse order on the afternoon of December 7, 1941: “Execute against Japan unrestricted air and submarine warfare.” America’s naval scouting force was now the tip of the spear.

In Retribution, his 2006 account of the last year of the Pacific war, the British military historian Max Hastings describes what then transpired:

Only 1.6 percent of the U.S. Navy’s wartime strength—16,000 men—served in its submarines. Yet these accounted for 55 percent of all of Japan’s wartime shipping losses—1,300 vessels, including a battleship, eight [aircraft] carriers and 11 cruisers [totaling] 6.1 million tons.

Twenty-two percent of all American sailors who experienced submarine operations perished—375 officers and 3,131 enlisted men—the highest loss rate of any branch of the wartime U.S. forces.  There was never a shortage of volunteers for the submarine service, with its extraordinary pride and its buccaneering spirit.

This, then, was Ling’s legacy. What happened next was less inspiring. Her subsequent front-line Cold War service was relatively brief. In 1960, she was relegated to Naval Reserve training duties at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, and was later towed to Hackensack and established as a memorial to the 52 U.S. submarines lost during World War II.  The effort was well-intended, but public interest was modest, if for no other reason than that Ling was hard to find in downtown Hackensack, a minor tourist destination to begin with.

In recent years, things got worse. Sorely decaying, and occupying a space eyed   by real-estate developers, Ling and a related naval museum were badly damaged by Hurricane Sandy. She now sits in the muck of the Hackensack River, seemingly scuttled by vandals with—curiously—more than a passing knowledge of how to get the job done. A police investigation continues, but Ling is beyond salvaging. All that’s left are the tricky logistics of removing the vessel from a spot where she has never really been welcome. Sic Transit Gloria.

Photo: Balao Class Sub/wiki commons

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