For those back home during World War II, perhaps the worst thing was not knowing. Most of the 52 American submarines lost in the war simply disappeared, with the Navy listing many of them as "overdue and presumed lost."
One of submarines was the USS Grunion, sent on its first operational voyage to the Aleutian Islands, west of Alaska, in the summer of 1942. It had a crew of 70. Her skipper was 39-year-old Lt. Cdr. Mannert L. "Jim" Abele. The sub sent a garbled report on July 30 that it had encountered several Japanese ships. After that, there was nothing.
Now Abele's three sons have mounted an expedition to the rough seas near Kiska Island, at the far end of the Aleutian chain. Half a mile beneath the surface, sonar images show a shadow that may well be the wreck of the Grunion.
"You have to be so careful," said Bruce Abele, now 76, a retired computer engineer who was the oldest of Mannert Abele's sons. He was 12 years old when his father was last heard from; his younger brothers, Brad and John, were 9 and 5.
"If you ask me, I'm comfortable that it's the Grunion," said Bruce. "John is not so comfortable."
For years, the three brothers, trading information with the Navy, with naval history buffs and with the descendants of other crew members, have searched for clues as to what happened to the Grunion.
They contacted Robert Ballard, the undersea explorer who found the wreck of the RMS Titanic. And they reached an amateur historian in Japan, Yutaka Iwasaki, who had gone through Japanese records and figured out the likely location of the wreck. Iwasaki found, in an obscure 1964 publication, a memoir from a Japanese sea captain, suggesting that the Grunion may have gone down after an encounter with an armed Japanese merchant ship, the Kano Maru.
Equipped with that information, the brothers contracted a Seattle-based ocean-surveying firm to go search the waters near Kiska Island with side-scan sonar.
Financing for the project came primarily from John Abele, who became wealthy after founding Boston Scientific Corp., a manufacturer of medical equipment. The family declines to say how much the expedition has cost.
"In my mind, we'd like to bring back memories of people," said Bruce Abele. "I think that is very healthy."
The sonar scanning, done from a crab fishing boat, had gone on for two weeks with no luck. Bruce Abele waited at home in suburban Boston. Then, Wednesday morning, he received this e-mail from Art Wright, the leader of the search team:
"We found a submarine-shaped hard target about 320 feet long and 12 meters wide. On a low altitude pass, the shadow reveals a possible conning tower and periscope. Target is sitting upright on the bottom at the base of the slope in [over 2000 feet] water depth. "Considering all the information we have, this is almost certainly the Grunion."
The sonar image shows a vessel the same size as the Grunion. The location is right, and there are no other wrecks of similar size in the area. But after 64 years of not knowing what happened to the Grunion, Bruce Abele says they would like to be certain. They hope another expedition can go next August, when the weather is the least hostile, perhaps to send a small robotic submarine to explore the site.
"It's quite an emotional swing," he said. "I consider myself pretty stoic, but this affects you, no question about it."