It is easy to overlook this modest memorial: a ship’s bell, on a granite boulder, in Veterans Park along Main Street. One’s eyes are naturally drawn most immediately to the beautiful, serene 9-11 Memorial located nearby. But the little bell has a story to tell as well, and the plaque affixed to the boulder barely touches on the adventures involved. The plaque reads: “This bell symbolic of freedom is the gift of the Navy Department to the Borough of Glen Rock December 1954/ From the Destroyer USS Lang (DD399) a veteran of ten operations World War II: named in memory of Seaman John Lang, USN, New Brunswick, NJ whose courageous action aboard USS Wasp help win War 1812/ Dedicated May 30th 1955”.
John Lang was born in the Dutch West Indies in 1794 but by 1812 he was a resident of New Brunswick, NJ, and he was already an experienced seaman serving in the US Navy aboard the USS Wasp. In mid-October 1812, the Wasp saw her only action during the War against England as she grappled with the HMS Frolic. Seaman Lang courageously led the boarding party “with cutlass in hand” and the Americans prevailed, although both ships were crippled and the Wasp was soon captured by newly arriving British reinforcements. John Lang’s heroics during this skirmish of the War of 1812 passed into US Naval history, and in 1939 the destroyer DD399 was commissioned as the USS Lang.
The USS Lang’s early years were spent in training exercises and coastal patrols since the United States was not yet involved in World War II. She had the honor of transporting President Franklin Roosevelt on two occasions; a special wheelchair ramp was constructed on the starboard side for the President’s use. Her first wartime action, in January 1942, was to rescue 34 survivors of a torpedoed British ship in the Atlantic Ocean but the bulk of her story was to take place in the Pacific arena.
A destroyer’s role is to escort and protect a convoy or fleet and therefore a destroyer is armed with torpedoes, depth charges and anti-aircraft guns to counter threats at sea as well as heavy guns for coastal bombardment. It is fitting that one of the ships that the USS Lang frequently protected in 1942 was the aircraft carrier USS Wasp (CV7); in fact, these two ships were part of the Task Force that took part in the first American land offensive of the Pacific war. The Wasp would be torpedoed and sunk before the end of 1942, but the Lang would defy the odds and survive the war as one of the most highly decorated ships in the Navy with 11 battle stars.
Guadalcanal; New Guinea; Vella Gulf of the “Tokyo Express” route; Kwajalein; the Marianas campaign; Leyte; Lingayen; Okinawa; Iwo and Chichi Jima – the Lang was there, providing escort protection, laying minefields, shooting down kamikaze attacks, laying down cover fire. She was nicknamed “Lucky Lang” because somehow she incurred no direct damage through it all and her crew suffered no enemy inflicted casualties – and because her hull numbers 399, when added together, equal 21.
Towards the end of World War II, naval engineering had progressed to the point that the larger, heavier destroyers such as the USS Lang were being replaced with faster, more maneuverable models. The Lang had returned to the States in July 1945 for repairs following the Okinawa operation, and while in dock the history of the world was changed forever when on 6 August 1945 the first atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, hastening the end of the war. The decision was made to decommission the Lang rather than return her to active duty and in October 1947 she was scrapped.
So how did the USS Lang’s bell wind up in a park in Glen Rock, New Jersey? It happens that Captain William McHale, USN, had been a commanding officer in the Pacific during the invasion of Chichi and Iwo Jima. Captain McHale (left, in photo) was also a long-time Glen Rock resident, with a long-time memory. He did not forget the service rendered by the “Lucky Lang” at Iwo and elsewhere during WWII and so he arranged to save the bell and have it placed, appropriately, in our Veterans Park as a gift from the United States Navy. It is a symbol of freedom that still rings loud and clear, in honor of those who serve and protect our country then and now.