A lifelong question of three men may be getting closer to being answered. What happened to their father's submarine?
They knew the Grunion had sunk two Japanese submarine chasers and heavily damaged a third in July 1942 near Kiska, one of two Aleutian islands occupied by the Japanese. They knew her last official radio message to the sub base at Dutch Harbor, on July 30, 1942, described heavy enemy activity at Kiska Harbor. They knew she still had 10 of her 24 torpedoes during that communication. They knew Dutch Harbor responded with an order to return to the base, but they don't know if Grunion ever received it.
Until a few years ago, the clues were too sparse to justify a search, said Abele, whose father, Mannert Abele, was the Grunion's commander.
"We really didn't do anything about it because there was nothing, no information," Abele said. "What were we going to do?"
Abele and his two brothers all married and had children. Bruce, the oldest, started working in computers in the late 1950s and later invested in Boston-area real estate. Brad, the middle son, owned a management recruiting business and John helped found the multibillion dollar medical equipment company Boston Scientific Corp.
Four years ago, a man who had heard about the Grunion's disappearance e-mailed Bruce the links to several Grunion Web sites.
One site held an entirely new clue, a note from a Japanese model ship builder who said he thought he knew what had happened to the Grunion.
John Abele contacted the man, Yutaka Iwasaki, who translated and sent him a report written in the 1960s by a Japanese military officer who served in the Aleutians. A maritime magazine had recently reprinted the report.
It described a confrontation between a U.S. submarine and the officer's freighter, the Kano Maru, on July 31, 1942, about 10 miles northeast of Kiska — the Grunion's patrol area.
The sub dispatched six or seven torpedoes. All but one bounced off the boat without exploding, or missed, the officer wrote, although the hit knocked out his engines and communications. He said he returned fire with an 8-centimeter deck gun, and believed he had sunk the sub.
Japanese troops took over Kiska and Attu in early June 1942, just as the Allies were winning the battle of Midway. The U.S. Navy was shoring up its defenses in the central Pacific, but managed to assign more than a dozen submarines to the waters around Kiska at the end of the month, according to declassified Navy orders.
The Abeles began investigating the identity of the sub in the Kano Maru officer's report.
They contacted Robert Ballard, discoverer of the Titanic. He declined to participate in a search, but briefed the Abeles on the complications of searching for deep-sea wrecks. Geological formations sometimes conceal a vessel; it could be perched precariously on an undersea cliff; the water pressure and landing impact could have broken the Grunion into small pieces, making it harder to find.
They also hired a marine survey firm, Williamson and Associates, for an expedition in August to Kiska. The Seattle-based company focuses on mapping ocean and river bottoms for oil and cable companies, government agencies and academic institutions and, occasionally, explores for wrecks.
The image they brought back shows an object on the sea floor but there are some very real problems with concluding it is actually the Grunion. The Gato class Grunion was about 312 feet long. The object they spotted is only 290 feet long. And even though I am not anything approaching an expert in interpreting a sonar image, something about this looks wrong. I'll put the images below the fold. But to my eye, the sonar image looks a lot like it might be a surface warship, not a submarine like the Grunion at all. The Grunion sank two Sub Chasers, remember. There's also no telling how many other ships are down there.
Here's the image they brought back, then pictures of a US Navy Submarine Chaser and a Destroyer Escort. I have no idea what a Japanese Sub Chaser looks like, but I'd be fairly sure they are right along the same lines.