Friday, January 27, 2006

Cracking a decades-old mystery

By Monsy Alvarado
January 26, 2006

HACKENSACK -- No one knows what is inside five steel safes on the USS Ling that have been shut for more than three decades.

There could be documents detailing strategies of the submarine's one and only World War II combat mission, crew orders, code books, or the executive officer's personal artifacts, such as family letters. Some of the boxes could be empty.

"It's hard to say what will be there," said Thomas Coulson, one of the board members for the Submarine Memorial Association, a non-profit that operates the New Jersey Naval Museum.
"There are a lot of things that could possibly be in there."

On Friday, speculation over what is in the safes will come to an end. The locks on the boxes will be opened with the help of Jeff Sitar, a Clifton resident and world-champion safecracker. Sitar will use an electronic stethoscope and his senses of sight, hearing and touch to decipher the locks' codes.
"I'm going to try my best to get all the five safes open," he said. "And I hope that there is stuff in it pertaining to the sub that the museum could use."
X-rays of the safes in the captain and executive officer's quarters show they hold paper and metal objects. Coulson, a former submariner, said he doesn't know what the metal objects could be, but he said he is sure that they're not weapons, which were usually kept in other areas of the vessel.

The contents of the three other safes are unknown, because the Ling's tight space made it impossible to take X-rays, museum officials said.

Sitar said he's not sure how long it will take him to crack all the locks. In the past, he's taken anywhere from a few seconds to more than an hour to figure out combinations.
"There's no idea on this," he said.

If Sitar is not able to unlock the metal boxes, the museum has received permission from the Navy to drill them open, said Michael Acocella, a museum board member.

"We don't want to go there, but if need be, that is what will be done," he said.

The Ling, a 312-foot-long Balao-class World War II submarine, is the last of the fleet boats that patrolled American shores during World War II.

The submarine made one Atlantic patrol before the war ended. Decommissioned in 1946, it was donated to the Submarine Memorial Association in 1971. The vessel arrived in Hackensack in 1973 and is moored on the Hackensack River.

Museum officials are not sure when the safes were last open. Some say they could have been used during training sessions in the 1960s, but others say the boxes were last unlocked during the boat's final tour of duty.

"From the research that has been done, it most likely dates back that far," Acocella said. "The combination went missing when the boat came back from its first and only patrol."

The mystery of the safes has attracted nationwide attention. Sitar said he's been interviewed by several news organizations and is set to make a live appearance on "Good Morning America" Friday morning.

Among those who will be on hand for the opening will be museum officials, state Sen. Loretta Weinberg, D-Teaneck, and scores of media.

Coulson said the public is invited, but he said they probably will have to wait outdoors while Sitar works, because the vessel will be cramped. He said if there is enough interest, tours will be offered after the contents of the safes have been revealed.



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