Answers to U.S.S Grunion mystery
The Submarine Service is often called the Silent Service.
While one aspect of that name derives from a submarine’s stealth, another results from the fact that once a submarine submerges, much of what the ship and crew do is a mystery to those without an appropriate security clearance and need to know. John and Bruce Abele have had a need to know since World War II. The submarine USS Grunion (SS-216), commanded by their father, Lieutenant Commander Mannert L. Abele, departed Naval Submarine Base New London in May 1942 en route to its first war patrol and was declared lost before the year’s end. (See page 7 for related story on Grunion history.) Last week, the Abele sons returned to Southeastern Connecticut for Historic Mystic Seaport’s fifth Adventure Series lecture of the season and discussed their search for their father’s submarine.
Children when Grunion became the seventh of 52 U.S. submarines lost during the war, John, Bruce, and Brad Abele, who died last year, knew very little of their father’s and his crew’s fate at the time, and not much more in the decades following the conflict. Through tireless research, the brothers were able to find the general area in which the submarine was lost off Alaska’s Aleutian Island chain; and in 2002, they benefitted from a little luck. That year, a Japanese man, named Yutaka Iwasaki, translated an article in an obscure Japanese shipping journal and posted it on one of the Grunion’s Web sites. The post described a location near the island of Kiska where a battle had taken place between a Japanese merchant ship, the Kana Maru, and an allied submarine, later to be confirmed as the Grunion.
Following this breakthrough, the brothers put together a plan. In August 2006, John, Bruce and Brad hired a team of side scan sonar experts to help them find the sunken boat in an area that measured nearly 100 square miles. The team discovered a structure 3,200 feet below the surface that closely resembled the Gato-class submarine.
In 2007, a second expedition was taken to get a closer inspection of the discovered structure. This time, a remotely operated vehicle (ROV), equipped with high definition cameras, was sent to inspect what they thought may be the wreckage of Grunion.It was.
“It is so dramatic to see the underwater photo and be certain it was in fact Grunion,” said Bruce.
Through the efforts of the brothers, their research expeditions, and assistance they received from the USS Cod Submarine Memorial, the Navy confirmed the positive identification of USS Grunion in October 2008. Although the wreckage has been found and the photos have been studied, it is still a mystery to what caused Grunion to sink. A popular theory is that the barrage of fire from the Kano Maru caused the submarine to lose depth control. Without the ability to remain buoyant, the sub sank, skidding down an underwater mountain, to its final resting place 3200 feet under the sea. The channel that the sub left in the mountain side can still be seen today stretching across a rocky terrain. The journey these brothers have taken to uncover the truth about their fallen father has been full of coincidence and chance encounters. “This discovery has come about through a stream of improbably events; it’s like we won the lottery 10 times in a row,” described Bruce, referring to the contact made with Yutaka Iwasaki and the quick discovery of Grunion. “To provide ourselves and the families this closure, it’s just icing on the cake,” said John.
USS Grunion (SS-216)
USS Grunion (SS-216) was a Gato Class submarine 312 feet in length and with a crew of 70. Launched by Electric Boat in Groton, Conn., on Dec. 22, 1941, Grunion was commissioned on April 11, 1942. Under the command of Lt. Cmdr. M. L. Abele, Grunion departed Naval Submarine Base New London en route to its first war patrol, May 24, 1942. The submarine arrived at Pearl Harbor on June 20, 1942. The vessel completed pre-patrol training before departing on patrol June 30. Abele was ordered to proceed to the Aleutian Islands and patrol westward from Attu on routes between the Aleutians and the Japanese Empire. On July 10, Grunion was reassigned to the area north of Kiska. Over the next 20 days, the submarine reported firing on an enemy destroyer, sinking three destroyer-type vessels, and attacking unidentified enemy ships near Kiska. Grunion’s last transmission was received on July 30, 1942.
The submarine reported heavy antisubmarine activity at the entrance to Kiska, and that it had 10 torpedoes remaining forward. On the same day, Grunion was directed to return to Dutch Harbor Naval Operating Base. There was no contact or sighting of the submarine after July 30, and on August 16, Grunion was reported lost. Abele was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for heroism. A destroyer, USS Mannert L. Abele (DD 733), was commissioned in his honor, and was later lost in action off Okinawa in 1945. Japanese anti-submarine attack data recorded no attack in the Aleutian area at the time of Grunion’s disappearance, so the submarine’s fate remained an unsolved mystery for more than 60 years. In 2002, a Japanese man, Yutaka Iwasaki, posted a translated excerpt from a Japanese naval journal on a Grunion website. The article was written by a Japanese naval officer who was on the Kano Maru, a Japanese armed merchant ship. The entry in the journal described an exchange of torpedoes and cannon fire with a submarine. The submarine landed two direct torpedo hits on the Kano Maru, however neither of them detonated upon impact, leaving only minor damage to the Japanese ship. The Kano Maru fired upon the submarine with machine gun fire and its 3-inch guns whenever the periscope would break the surface of the ocean.
After one particular volley, brown liquid and a shaft were seen shooting into the air and falling back into the water. U.S. Navy torpedo failures plagued submarine operations during the early part of World War II. Retired Master Chief Radioman Dean Brown, who attended the Abele sons presentation during last week’s Historic Mystic Seaport’s fifth Adventure Series lecture recalled the challenge of those malfunctions. “It was possible to set a distance for them to explode and even the direction they should take after leaving their tubes, but these mechanisms often failed,” said Dean, a World War II submariner and veteran of 9 war patrols including the Battle of Midway. “Many times, when a torpedo scored a direct hit, it would not detonate.”
The problem would later be solved by the work of legendary submariner, and later Vice Adm. Charles B. “Swede” Momsen who supervised Navy tests investigating the issue. Momsen and his team detected a fault in the impact portion of the Mark-6 exploder mechanism used on the Mark-14 submarine torpedo and Mark-15 destroyer torpedo. The Navy subsequently ordered field modification of the firing pin and guides.