Businessman recounts finding missing WWII vessel his father died on
Billionaire businessman John Abele shared his remarkable story about finding closure over his father’s 1942 death — and finding a long-missing submarine at the bottom of the Bering Sea — in a Wednesday evening talk at the National World War II Museum.
Abele’s father, Lt. Cmdr. Jim Abele, was captain of the Grunion, a submarine that sank in the Alaskan Aleutian islands in 1942 after it engaged with an armed Japanese merchant vessel called the Kano Maru.
In his presentation, “Lost for Sixty Years: The Most Unusual Search for the USS Grunion,” Abele recounted how the ship’s sinking had been shrouded in mystery for decades before he set out to discover — with his brothers Bruce and Brad —- how the state-of-the art sub had met its fate.
“We knew that he had been lost. We knew it was in the Aleutians. But we didn’t know why,” Abele said.
Abele, a co-founder of Boston Scientific, was introduced by museum president Nick Mueller, who said the Abeles’ journey of discovery was “a love story of three sons and their father.”
The Grunion saw short but intense action in the opening days of the Pacific war. Abele noted that it was the first ship launched after the catastrophic Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, just weeks after the attack, on Dec. 22, 1941.
The ship was built by the Electric Boat Company at the submarine base in New London, Connecticut and commissioned as a Navy sub in April of 1942.
The vessel traveled through the Panama Canal, Abele said, sank a sub-chaser on the way to Pearl Harbor, and arrived off of the far-flung Alaskan island of Kiska in mid-July of 1942.
It was on the bottom of the Bering Sea by the end of the month.
In 2006, Abele hired a family-owned Alaskan crab boat and a sonar team to see if they could locate the submarine. A sonar team was installed on a deck-side cargo container, and the team soon discovered a wreck and debris trail in the area where sub was said to have gone down.
Abele and the team returned to the spot a year later and, after delays owing to the characteristically rough Bering Sea conditions, were able to launch a remote-operated-vehicle that confirmed the wreck was, indeed, the USS Grunion.
Tell-tale propeller guards, removed from subsequent submarines built in the Grunion’s class, were the eureka giveaway Abele and his team had been looking for.
Adele’s talk hit on all the themes and research areas his search would tackle — geography, genealogy, technology, forensics, international collaboration — and a relentless Internet search for family survivors from the 70 crew members who perished
And yet, at the conclusion of his talk, one nagging question hung in the air.
It was quickly put to Abele by one of the hundreds in attendance, which included a handful of WWII veterans.
What sank the USS Grunion?
Abele discounted the merchant ship it had engaged with and tried to torpedo — even though he said the Kano Maru had fired dozens of shells at the submarine.
“The idea that a cargo ship could sink a submarine was patently ridiculous,” Abele said.
Stressing it was speculation, Abele suggested the Grunion might have been sunk by one of its own torpedoes, in a highly unusual incident of “friendly fire” being initiated by one’s own vessel.
The Grunion had fired six torpedoes, Abele said, but only five had been accounted for.
The 2007 scan of the Bering Sea floor had revealed that “the superstructure is bent forward, and there’s a deep sort of round dent in it,” Abele said. “A torpedo may have hit the submarine. There was an observation that there was a circular trail of bubbles.”