USS Lagarto on 'Eternal Patrol'

June 27, 2006 — -- Let us take you on a journey, to the quiet waters of the Gulf of Thailand. Two hundred feet below the surface, 100 miles from any port, Navy divers have examined what they believe is the wreck of the USS Lagarto.

It was one of the Navy's newest submarines, launched in the last year of World War II and sent to the Pacific. The submarine was preparing to attack a Japanese convoy when it was last heard from on May 3, 1945, with 86 sailors onboard.

Now they are on "eternal patrol" -- the phrase sailors often use for submariners who bravely went to sea and never returned.

"God only knows, 61 years ago, what actually took place, and why she's actually sitting there on the bottom," said Bryan Zenoni, one of the Navy divers sent to investigate the wreck. "That's what we're here trying to figure out."

Zenoni and his crewmates on the USS Salvor, based in Hawaii, spent a week diving to the Lagarto. It was ostensibly a training mission; the Salvor would be rushed to the scene if a modern-day submarine were trapped underwater. But for the crew of the Salvor, the Lagarto took on larger importance.

"The first thing you do when you get down there," said Zenoni, "is reach down and touch it, because nobody's really been down there in 60 years. So it's kind of an incredible experience."

Families of the Crew 'Found' Their Fathers

The Lagarto's crew included men from all over the United States. One of them was William Tucker Mabin of LaGrange, Ill., who left behind a young wife and a 2-year-old daughter named Nancy.

Nancy Mabin is now Nancy Kenney, married and living in northern Michigan. She said she has no memory of her father, but she's often wondered about him and his final mission.

"At that time there was a sense of duty," she told us. "Most of those men were very young -- all of them were very young -- and they all wanted to come home. But they all felt it was their duty to finish, see it through and finish the war."

She shared part of a letter he had written to her mother in April 1945.

"Nancy seems to be so much the little girl instead of a baby," he wrote. "I pray that soon I'll become her favorite father."

His family never saw him again. And although the Navy listed the Lagarto as "overdue and presumed lost," nobody was quite sure what had happened until last year, when a commercial diver, combing the Gulf of Thailand with sonar, came upon the wreck.

Kenney said she was shocked at first and never had a chance to grieve properly for her father. But she soon moved beyond that, she said, to a sense of peace.

In the year since the wreck was found, she's been in regular contact with Karen Duvalle, of the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowac, near the site of the yard where the Lagarto was built. With her help, they've now made contact with more than 60 of the 86 families who lost loved ones on the submarine.

The Navy has decided, in keeping with tradition, to leave the Lagarto in peace on the ocean bottom. Kenney said it seems a beautiful place, and an appropriate final resting place.

"Most of the Lagarto children -- and we've all talked about this -- feel like we have found our fathers," she said. " And feel like we have a new spiritual relationship with them."