U.S.S. Ling, World War II Sub
Hackensack, New Jersey
"Technically, the Ling isn't a submarine. It's a submersible," said Tom Coulson, the guide for our tour group. Tom knew the difference. He served on a World War II sub identical to the Ling -- the Batfish, which has been turned into its own attraction in Oklahoma.
Such distinctions, however, are lost on the general public, including us. It travels underwater, it fires torpedoes, it sinks boats; it's a submarine, or it might as well be.
(For those who want to know: a submarine is rounded and spends most of its time underwater, a submersible is thin and spends some of its time on the surface.)
The Ling is over 300 feet long, and it has floated in a quiet corner of the Hackensack River since the early 1970s. Built to prowl the seas, today it's surrounded by ducks.
Its interior is a pleasantly cool, dark place to be on a hot afternoon. The predominant paint color is Insane Asylum Green. With Tom leading the way, we squeezed under and around a warren of exposed pipes, valves, switches, and batteries of dials, and through a series of hatches on which everyone bumped their heads at least once. The Ling's knifelike silhouette ensures a narrow, one-way tour. Everything is made of metal, and the constant clank clank boom of just walking around is like being inside a big pot, or a prison.
Tom fired off technical details nonstop -- the acid capacity of the batteries, the horsepower of the diesel engines, the compressed air needed to fire a torpedo -- and he answered each of our insightful questions. Is the Ling haunted? "Not that I know of." Could it sink right now? "The water isn't deep enough." Did anyone ever go crazy on your submarine? "No." What's your favorite submarine movie? "Run Silent, Run Deep." How do you flush a toilet on a submarine? "You shut the valves to the sinks, otherwise you'll make a big mess."
The Ling has been restored to its 1945 appearance. Old maps and Life magazines litter the officers' quarters; plastic vegetables and a bowl of yarn "spaghetti" liven up the crew galley. In the Control Room, Tom triggered the diving klaxon, talked about the bilge pumps, and said that a sub is "like a balloon, only it's in the water."
We made Tom climb into a bunk to demonstrate how he did it over 50 years ago. "This was the best place for sleeping," Tom said of the crew quarters. "I'd never bunk in the torpedo rooms. All that banging and clanging." In the engine room, Tom turned on a recording of what an engine sounded like. Shouting over the din, Tom said that subs like the Ling sometimes had four engines roaring at once. "You can pretty much pick out the guys who worked in the engine rooms," he said. "They all have hearing aids."
The tour ended back on dry land, in a small museum with displays of an old diving suit and a 300-lb depth charge cut in half. The gift shop sold copies of "Beef Stew For 2,500: Feeding Our Navy," with each copy signed by the author.
We asked Tom if any visitor had ever freaked out on one of his tours. "Oh, yeah, some people have to leave, they can't take it," he said. But being on a sub never bothered Tom, even though he said on the tour that 52 American Ling-like subs sank during World War II, and of their 3,500 crewmen, only six survived. "If we got into trouble, we would collapse on the way down, before we hit bottom," Tom said. "But that never crossed my mind."