ANCHORAGE — On July 30, 1942, the USS Grunion, a 312-foot-long submarine prowling off the Aleutian Islands, contacted Navy officials in Dutch Harbor. It had sunk two Japanese sub chasers and damaged a third. It was down to its last 10 torpedoes. The Navy ordered it to return to base.
It never arrived and was never heard from again.
For nearly 70 years its fate remained unknown — a nagging mystery for the families of the men who vanished with it.
“I was on that ship when it was launched,” said Bruce Abele, a son of the Grunion’s captain, Mannert Abele, in a phone call from his home in Newport, Mass. “Dec. 22, 1941, right after Pearl Harbor.”
Less than a year later, the Grunion and its crew of 70 were reported missing. Bruce Abele was 12.
“I don’t know if I ever believed (my father) wasn’t coming back,” he told a Detroit newspaper. “But he never did.”
Many Memorial Day services take place in battlefields or cemeteries. The deceased are, in a way, physically connected to the place. For those who die at sea, however, the ceremony is necessarily conducted at a distance, but they are remembered all the same.
Monday, for the first time in Alaska, an exhibit was scheduled to open and a Memorial Day event was set to take place honoring the men of the Grunion — the only American warship ever lost in combat in Alaska waters.
Japan invaded Alaska and occupied two islands in the spring of 1942. The Grunion was dispatched from Midway Island in the Pacific to patrol the Aleutians. It made a brief stop in Adak before it disappeared.
No solid clues pointed to where or how it had met its end. The Japanese reported no anti-submarine action at the time it vanished. The U.S. Navy was baffled. The Grunion became a footnote of the world war.
But Capt. Abele’s sons did not forget. As adults they all had highly successful careers, especially the youngest, John, who co-founded the multibillion-dollar medical company, Boston Scientific Corp.
About 10 years ago, Bruce, John and their brother Brad (now deceased), flew to Alaska on John’s private jet, compelled to try to find out something. They hoped to reach the western Aleutians but were turned back by bad weather.
Low on fuel, they made an unscheduled landing at Cold Bay. They checked into the Cold Bay Lodge, checked their email and were surprised to find their first hint of the Grunion’s fate.
A man in Japan, Yutaka Iwasaki, had the account of an officer on a Japanese cargo ship, the Kano Maru. The officer recounted how a submarine attacked his ship on July 31, 1941.
The officer said the sub had fired several torpedoes. One struck and exploded, leaving the Kano Maru dead in the water. The others either missed or hit the ship without detonating. The Kano Maru returned fire with its forward deck gun. There appeared to be an explosion and an oil slick as the sub went under.
Iwasaki suspected that the sub was the Grunion.
The officer had given a location for the encounter. Using it as a starting point, the Abele brothers rummaged through piles of war records and narrowed the site to a 100-square-mile area.
In 2006, the brothers hired Williamson and Associates, a company that provides commercial underwater mapping services, and the Aquila, a Bering Sea crabber based in Seattle. From the decks of the crabber, technicians dropped cameras at the coordinates given by the Kano Maru’s officer and found a long shape 3,000 feet below the surface.
Some doubted that the grainy image showed a submarine, but Bruce Abele was certain.
“One thing we knew that everyone else didn’t know was that the location where it was found was exactly where it was predicted to be,” he said. “It was enough to take a second look.”
The next summer, better equipment was lowered to the site. It sent back spectacular, clear pictures of an imploded WWII-era American submarine.
Even then, some had questions.
“The real problem was trying to get the Navy to admit that the sub was the Grunion,” said Bruce Abele. But his father’s boat (for historical reasons, subs are called “boats” rather than “ships”) was the only American sub sunk in the Aleutian campaign.
“As long as it’s an American sub, it had to be the Grunion,” he said.
Doubts notwithstanding, a commemoration of the Grunion and its crew was scheduled in October 2008 in Cincinnati, Ohio, where a sister sub of the Grunion, the USS Cod, is on display. Families of the fallen, including the widows of two crewmen, attended.
Shortly before the tribute began, the Navy officially confirmed that the wreckage found 10 miles north of Kiska was, indeed, the Grunion.
Rear Adm. Douglas McAneny thanked the Abeles. “We hope this announcement will help to give closure to the families,” he said.
In 2009, Australian archaeologist and WWII historian Dirk H.R. Spennemann identified one of the two 3-inch guns from the Kano Maru. It was removed after the ship was beached in the harbor on Kiska, one of the two Alaska islands held for more than a year by the Japanese.
The gun was originally part of a warship the Japanese ordered from the British before WWI; it was later placed aboard the cargo ship, Spennemann said. It still stands where it was mounted ashore, pointing toward the harbor. “There’s a 50 percent chance that this is the gun that fired on the Grunion,” he said.
If the Japanese report is accurate, Spennemann said, the fight with the Grunion would be “the only time in the war that a pre-WWI gun on a merchant ship sank a U.S. sub. And they would have fired pre-WWI shells, too.”
But did those antique shells and gun really sink the sub?
Various experts have pored over the new photos of the Grunion’s remains and come up with different theories. The scenario described by Charles Tate, who served on the Grunion’s sister sub, the Gato, seems credible to Bruce Abele.
“No way will a 3-inch shell do that amount of damage,” Abele said. The gunner on the Kano Maru was probably firing at the “washing wave” of the bubble created when the sub imploded.
Tate’s analysis suggests that, rather than being sunk by a lucky shot, the Grunion was the victim of its own torpedo.
At the start of the war, American torpedoes were notoriously failure-prone. “They didn’t work,” Abele said bluntly. “They could pre-explode. They would shoot low. They only detonated at an angle; if you hit something straight on it would not explode.”
Four admirals investigated reports of duds and decided they were the fault of the captains and crews. The German navy encountered the same issue and corrected it in a matter of weeks. It took the Americans nearly two years to fix the problem.
That proved lucky for the Kano Maru. It took at least two direct hits that failed to detonate.
Looking at pictures of the Grunion’s conning tower, Tate noted damage to the shears — the reinforcement that keeps the periscope from vibrating when the boat is under way. Damage conceivably caused by a boomeranging torpedo.
But even if the torpedo hit the shears, the damage would have been relatively minor.
Abele thinks a combination of human reaction and mechanical failure completed the disaster.
“You can hear a torpedo coming at you,” he said. “It makes a very distinct sound.”
When the crew heard that dreaded sound, they would have tried to avoid the incoming bullet by making a hard dive. In the process, the rear dive planes — similar to the elevator on the tail of a Piper Cub — jammed in dive position.
There had been an incident shortly after the Grunion’s initial launch in which another sub bumped against it. The rear planes were examined, but thought to be undamaged. In hindsight, Abele wonders if that collision didn’t contribute to the fatal jamming.
Unable to pull out of the dive, the Grunion plunged helplessly to about 1,000 feet below the surface, where crushing water pressure caused it to implode. Hatches blew open. A portion of the bow ripped off. The bulk of the hull landed on an underwater slope and slid to its current resting place.
The skid marks are still visible.
A roster of Alaska shipwrecks maintained by the federal Department of the Interior includes two other vessels, both destroyers, damaged in Alaska in WWII. Each suffered significant loss of life.
The Worden, which survived the attack on Pearl Harbor without a scratch, hit a rock in Amchitka Harbor on Jan. 12, 1943. Fourteen men died.
The Abner Read struck a mine in the chaotic invasion of Kiska on Aug. 18, 1943. The Japanese had already abandoned the base and left Alaska. Seventy men lost their lives on the Abner Read, but the destroyer itself was repaired and returned to battle in the South Pacific, eventually going down in the Battle of Leyte Gulf.
That makes the Grunion Alaska’s only U.S. Navy vessel ever lost in battle at sea.
Today’s commemoration and the new exhibit, a collaboration between the Alaska Aviation Museum and the new Alaska Veterans Museum, will feature a model of the sub, displays and pictures of the crew. The exhibit, at the Aviation Museum, will be on display for most of this year. Abele, who is working on a book about the loss of and search for the Grunion, was hoping to speak with Monday’s crowd by Internet teleconference.
In an interview, Abele didn’t seem inclined to blame the Japanese for his loss. Or even the fatal torpedo.
He was less sympathetic to the “four admirals who absolutely ignored the problem. If the first torpedoes had worked, the last one wouldn’t have happened.”
The Naval History Division lists 52 American subs and 3,505 submariners lost in WWII, the highest percentage of any branch of the Navy.
But the sacrifice was not without purpose, Abele noted. Their stealth and striking power were indispensable for attack, defense and rescue missions. They wrought havoc with supply lines, hobbling the enemy on land as well as at sea.
“Without the subs,” Abele said, “we would have lost the war.”