Lessons from the search for the USS Grunion

Peter F. Stevens Author, "Fatal Dive"
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Seventy years ago, on July 31, 1942, the submarine USS Grunion, along with her entire crew, disappeared without a trace in the icy waters of the wind-swept Bering Sea off the Aleutian Islands. Commander Mannert “Jim” Abele and the 69 men serving with him in the war against Imperial Japan had simply vanished.

And if not for the dogged determination of Jim Abele’s family — and the extraordinary collaboration of people across the United States and around the world — we might still know no more about this World War II tragedy. But Jim’s wife Kay, raising three sons alone, never gave up her determination to unlock the mystery of her husband’s fate, and when those sons became successful men — John, age five when he last saw his father, cofounded medical giant Boston Scientific; Bruce, twelve when the Grunion set out for the last time, became an engineer and inventor; and Brad, nine when his father left, was the owner of a management-recruiting firm — the three brothers embarked upon a quixotic quest to find the Grunion herself at the bottom of the Bering Sea.

Naval authorities were unable or unwilling to reveal much beyond the fact that the Grunion was “presumed missing or lost in action.” Brad Abele compiled years of research about the Grunion and his father in a personal manuscript entitled Jim, but the first actionable clue came from Japan in March 2002. A scholar named Yutaka Iwasaki had posted a Japanese freighter captain’s detailed account of a battle with an American submarine off Kiska Island on July 31, 1942 — and the Grunion had been the only American sub in the area on that date.

The Abele brothers continued to hunt for any information that might lead them closer to their father’s sub. Robert Ballard, the world-famous explorer who found the Titanic and the Bismarck, and whose chance meeting with John Abele re-energized the search, advised the Abeles about mounting a longshot sonar search, but Ballard was committed to a different expedition in summer 2006, the first practicable window for a search in the brutal Bering Sea. So the Abeles put together a search team not aboard a sleek research vessel but on the Aquila, the rugged “crabber” skippered by savvy, adventurous Alaskan fishing-boat captain Kyle Garcia. And as the Aquila and sonar expert Art Wright and his team were in preparations to meet at Dutch Harbor to begin the search, Yutaka uncovered a long-lost Imperial Japanese Navy battle chart that actually provided the coordinates of the Grunion’s last engagement. Captain Seiichi Aiura’s chart was nothing less than a Rosetta stone for the Abeles — the clue no one had even imagined existed. It narrowed 200 square miles in the rough Bering waters to a target zone of only four square miles.

The team acquired sonar hits revealing what looked like a sub on the sea bottom — though many experts dismissed them as images of a sunken surface ship or even a dead whale. So the Abeles eventually decided to mount a second expedition, in August 2007, this time with a Remote Operated Vehicle (ROV) to take video footage of the object — though with no guarantee that the Bering Sea’s giant waves and sudden 100-mile-an-hour “williwaw” winds would cooperate. This time, John Abele would be aboard the Aquila.

Late on the night of August 22, 2007, with a storm front looming, the ROV Max Rover’s beacons knifed through the dark depths to reveal the ghostly contours of a submarine. The Grunion had been sighted for the first time in 65 years.

The Abele brothers had found their father’s ship, but one question lingered: What sank the USS Grunion? Was it a hit by the Japanese, a catastrophic mechanical failure, or something else? The Abeles found the answer in what naval expert Frederick J. Milford has dubbed “The Great Torpedo Scandal” of 1941-43. At the time the Grunion set out to sea, submarine skippers’ complaints about the MK 14 torpedo had been ignored by top brass, but a yet more dangerous defect — a tendency to “circular runs” — was yet to reveal itself. Japanese Navy eyewitness accounts point to one of the Grunion’s own torpedoes circling back and striking the submarine. It didn’t detonate, but it set off a chain of events that doomed the sub.

The lessons for us, 70 years later? There aren’t many mysteries that stubborn determination and old-fashioned Yankee ingenuity can’t solve; cooperation between former enemies can yield productive results; and American sailors and soldiers should never have to go to war with defective weapons.

Peter F. Stevens is the author of “Fatal Dive: Solving the World War II Mystery of the USS Grunion.”