Missing WWII Sub Hunt a Labor of Love

Sons of submarine's skipper never gave up hopes of finding the lost ship.

Oct. 5, 2008— -- It was a mystery that endured for 66 years: What happened to one of the first U.S. submarines launched during World War II?

The USS Grunion was on its maiden mission, patrolling the icy Bering Sea off the far western tip of Alaska, when it vanished in July 1942 with 70 men on board.

Bruce, Brad, and John Abele, the three sons of the Grunion's skipper, always wondered about the submarine's fate. But unlike the families of most service personnel missing in action, they were in a position to do something about it.

The brothers tapped into John Abele's huge fortune -- he is a billionaire, after having co-founded the world's largest medical device company, Boston Scientific -- to finance an extraordinary search.

Last week, after many years, more than a little luck and two expeditions financed by the Abeles to comb one of the world's most treacherous stretches of ocean, the Navy confirmed that wreckage found at a depth of 5,000 feet off a tiny Alaskan island was in fact the missing submarine.

"This discovery has come about through a stream of seemingly improbable events," said Bruce Abele, 78, the oldest of the three brothers. "It's like we won the lottery 10 times in a row."

The Grunion left Hawaii on June 30, 1942, for the waters off Alaska's Aleutian chain. In the following weeks, the sub radioed that it sank three Japanese destroyers. On July 30, the Grunion reported intense anti-submarine activity. It was never seen or heard from again.

Bruce Abele, then 12 years old, and his brothers were tossing a football outside their suburban Boston home, when their mother received a Western Union telegram. The Navy wrote that the Grunion had not been heard from, and that Lt. Comdr. Mannert L. Abele was feared lost at sea.

It was Sept. 30, 1942. The Abeles -- and the families of the 69 other crewmen -- were never told much more than that.

"Our mother was left with three small children, and no means of support," Bruce recalled, "and yet she was able to sit down and write a note of condolence to every single next of kin. As the wife of the Grunion commander, she felt an obligation."

As for Bruce, "I used to shoot a basketball and think that if I could make five baskets in a row, my dad would come home."

The three Abele boys grew up, got married, had children and went on to enjoy successful careers. But the mystery of what happened to their father and his crew was never far from their minds.

"We always puzzled about it, but we didn't know what to do. We never had any official notification of where the Grunion was lost. All we knew was that it was in the Pacific, although we would hear rumors that it was somewhere in the Aleutians," Bruce said.

The mystery began unraveling in 1995, when a retired Air Force officer wandered into a Colorado Springs antique shop and purchased, for $1, an old wiring diagram from an armed Japanese merchant ship, the Kano Maru. Six years later, the retired officer requested information about the Kano Maru through a posting on a military history Web site.

An amateur historian from Japan responded, and revealed that the ship had sunk the Grunion. The Abele brothers got wind of this, and contacted the historian, who found an old article written by the merchant ship's military commander that more or less pinpointed where the Grunion went down.

"That finally gave us a place where to look," Bruce Abele said.

After consulting with Titanic explorer Robert Ballard, the brothers hired an ocean surveying firm and chartered a crab boat whose captain knew his way around the Bering Sea. Using sophisticated sonar, the 2006 expedition discovered an oblong object on the sea floor 10 miles north of Kiska Island that looked like the remains of a submarine.

The brothers financed a second expedition in the summer of 2007 that deployed a remote operating vehicle with lights and a high-definition camera to videotape the wreckage. It was this tape that the Navy used to verify that the wreckage was indeed the Grunion.

"We hope this announcement will help to give closure to the families of the 70 crewmen," Rear Adm. Douglas McAneney, of the Submarine Forces Pacific Fleet, said last week in confirming the Grunion's discovery.

The Grunion still has not revealed all her secrets. Bruce Abele said it remains unclear why the sub sank, despite the claims of the Kano Maru's military commander. The wreckage captured on the tape shows no evidence of a direct hit or an explosion.

"The tape is being analyzed. A number of people are trying to figure out what happened," he said.

In the meantime, the families of the crew members plan to join for the first time to pay tribute to the men of the Grunion, at a memorial next weekend in Cleveland where a sister ship of the Grunion, the USS Cod, is docked.

For the two surviving Abele brothers – Brad died last spring – it has been an emotional journey of discovery. Bruce Abele said they feel fortunate to have solved the central mystery of the Grunion – not only for themselves, but also for the families of their father's crew

"Our mother taught us that way," he said. "She felt a responsibility for everybody when she wrote those letters, and we followed that lead."