Long-Lost World War II Sub May Be Found
SCOTT SIMON, host:
A team on a crab boat believes they have solved a 64-year-old mystery. For the past few weeks they've been searching the ocean floor off Kiska Island near the end of the Aleutian Island chain and think they've found the wreck of the USS Grunion, the only American submarine sunk in the Aleutians during World War II.
From member station KIAL in Unalaska, Charles Homans reports.
CHARLES HOMANS reporting:
On the morning of July 31, 1942, the Grunion disappeared in the Bering Sea without so much as a distress call. There were 70 men onboard and their fate has been a mystery for six decades. The skipper was Captain Mannert Abele and his eldest son, Bruce, is now 76 years old. Bruce recalls saying goodbye to his father just before Mannert left for the Aleutians in May of that year.
Mr. BRUCE ABELE (Son of Captain Mannert Abele): We had a dinner at an officer's club in New London and then, you know, he said he had to go down to do some more work on the boat. And that was the last time I heard of him.
HOMANS: Bruce Abele and his two younger brothers, John and Brad, always held on to the hope that they would find the Grunion and learn what happened to their father. This month a surveying team set out to the Aleutians to try to do just that. But navigator Richard Graham says that it's easier said than done. The proverbial needle in a haystack is nothing compared to a submarine in the Bering Sea.
Mr. RICHARD GRAHAM (Navigator, The Aquilla): You know, it's a big bunch of water there. And so if you're to trying just find a submarine, where do you start? You really have to have some sort of story that you can work from.
HOMANS: It turns out that such a story did actually exist. Shortly after the Grunion disappeared back in July of 1942, a Japanese military officer filed a report of an incident that had taken place near Kiska Island. A merchant ship was on a military supply mission when it was torpedoed by an American submarine. The ship returned fire with its deck gun and the submarine disappeared beneath the waves.
The Abeles discovered this story in 2002, when a Japanese naval history buff first translated the officer's report into English. That's when the Abeles began their own search for the Grunion.
(Soundbite of a motor)
HOMANS: On a recent afternoon, the crab boat called The Aquilla was docked on the port of Dutch Harbor in the Aleutian Islands. The treeless, windswept landscape around Dutch Harbor still bears the scars of World War II. The port was bombed by the Japanese during the war. It remains dotted with abandoned cement bunkers, Quonset huts and gun placements. On the deck of the Aquilla surveyors Matt Myer and Jay Larson opened a container to show me the sonar equipment they used to locate an object that looks like the Grunion, in the mile deep water off the coast of Kiska Island.
Unidentified Man (Surveyor): So we did a lot - covered a lot of ground with that, found a nice target and got in as close as we could with that. And then when...
HOMANS: The surveyors' expedition on The Aquilla was funded by Bruce Abele's younger brother John. He happens to be the founder of Boston Scientific Corporation, a multi-billion dollar medical technology company. On the fifth day of searching near Kiska, the team found what they believed to be the Grunion. Back in Massachusetts, Bruce Abele had been obsessively checking his e-mail for messages from The Aquilla's crew. He got the good news in the middle of the night on August 14th.
Mr. ABELE: I got to the point where every single day and every night I'd get up at two o'clock, and that's when all the communication came in. And I got it. I saw it. And wow, this is interesting. This is really quite exciting. But, you know, it certainly - it's very encouraging, but you've got to be very skeptical if you really, you know, you can really hurt yourself if you don't do that.
HOMANS: But the surveyors are optimistic. For now, they only have blurry sonar images of an oblong object with a small tower on it. Next summer they hope to return with a remote controlled device to photograph what they've found. In the meantime, the Abeles brothers flew to Adak Island in the Aleutians last week to meet with the surveyors and share in the good news.
The surveyors brought the brothers a bouquet of wildflowers from Kiska Island, near where they now believe to be their father's resting place.
For NPR News, I'm Charles Homans in Unalaska.
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