Sunday, January 01, 2006

Closure, World War II sub found under the sea

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The Charlotte Observer
By Kelly Kennedy
August 11, 2005

CHICAGO - In the ghostly blue lights of a video camera, sea snakes, squids and schools of blue and yellow fish swirl past five-inch battle guns of a World War II submarine 200 feet beneath the South China Sea.

"With all the fish and the coral covering the Lagarto, it's almost like someone put flowers on a grave," said Elizabeth Kenney-Augustine, whose grandfather, Bill Mabin of La Grange, Ill., was on the sub.

For decades, no human knew where to put flowers for the 86 men who disappeared with the U.S.S. Lagarto somewhere between Thailand and Australia shortly before World War II ended.

In May, a diving team, following the hints of fishermen telling tales of snagged nets, discovered the Lagarto in the Gulf of Thailand. Experts say this is the missing boat because it is believed to be the only American Balao class submarine sunk in the Gulf of Thailand during the war, and because Japanese records released after the war ended show Japanese sailors sank a sub in the area where the Lagarto disappeared.

"We believe the wreck to be the Lagarto," said Jamie Macleod, who, with the U.S. Navy's permission, dove down to look at the outside of the sub. Macleod and Stewart Oehl of the MV Trident dive boat in Thailand discovered the missing submarine.

Author Clive Cussler has spoken with the men about a documentary on the history of the Lagarto, as well as their discovery. U.S. Rep. Daniel Lipinski, D-Ill., has called on the U.S. Navy to confirm the sub's identity.

"We've been doing what we can to relate the importance of recognizing these brave crew members to the attention of the Navy," said Chris Ganschow, Lipinski's spokesman.

After talking with the family, Macleod took Kenney-Augustine and her brother, John Kenney Jr., off the shores of Thailand last week to read letters and poems from family members in the first burial ceremony the missing men have had.

On July 31, a diver tucked a dozen white roses into the conning tower, or attack center, of the U.S.S. Lagarto. Minutes later, the flowers had disappeared.

"We thought that was nice," said Kenney-Augustine, of Chicago's Wicker Park neighborhood.

"Like they accepted our offering."

For 60 years, Mabin's daughter, Nancy Kenney of Lake Leelanau, Mich., wondered if her father had somehow come out of the war alive. She waited for him to be released from a prisoner-of-war camp. Or to appear on a remote island. Or to pop through the front door after a top-secret mission.

She knows the families of the other 85 men on board the submarine must have wondered the same things.

"From the letters between my mother and the other wives, I can see there was great confusion," Kenney said. "They were hoping their husbands were in prison camp. Imagine that - seeing that as the best-case scenario."

Kenney was 2 when her father was lost. She said her mother, Margaret Chambers, of Glen Arbor, Mich., was pleased to hear her husband had been found.

"He was the love of her life," Kenney said. "She's been shaken by this."

The U.S.S. Lagarto was one of 28 submarines built in Manitowac, Wis., and the Wisconsin Maritime Museum has adopted the submarine and created a memorial to it. According to the museum's history of the sub, it was tested in Lake Michigan.

It left Subic Bay in the Philippines on April 12, 1945 for the Siam Gulf, now the Gulf of Thailand, for its second trip.

U.S.S. Baya officers reported at the time that they were to rendezvous with the Lagarto to discuss plans to attack a Japanese convoy on May 3, 1945. At 1 a.m. May 4, 1945, the Japanese convoy drove off the Baya, but nothing was ever heard again from the Lagarto. It was supposed to dock in Australia at the end of May, but it never arrived.

In June 1945, Mabin's family received a letter saying he was missing in action. A year later, another letter arrived describing him as "presumed dead."

"This will give you a real glimpse into World War II," Kenney said. "This is what I grew up with. That's the last correspondence any of the families had with the Navy."

After the war ended, the Japanese released records showing the minelayer Hatsutaka sunk a sub at the same time and same place the Lagarto was believed to be during the war, but there was no confirmation.

Kenney's children grew up with Mabin's ghost. Every year on Memorial Day, John Kenney has searched the Internet for some sign of his grandfather.

"This year, I did a Google search, and someone had posted that it had been found," John Kenney said. "Two divers had found it. It's considered one of the Holy Grails of Asian diving because it's one of the only U.S. subs lost anywhere near the Gulf of Thailand."

Kenney said he immediately called her mother and asked if she were sitting down. After he told her, she began to cry.

"I went through so many emotions," Nancy Kenney said. "It's an odd feeling to grieve for someone 60 years after they're gone."

She began to contact the families of the missing men.Kelan Spalding's brother R.B. Spalding of Springfield, Mo., was also on the Lagarto.

"My wife heard about it on the news and said, `Do you suppose that could be Bobby's sub?'" Spalding said. "But I thought it would be in deeper water."

Then he got the call from Nancy Kenney.

"I was 9 years old when it went down," he said. "I'm relieved to know exactly why and how and where. I hope they allow the divers to film it."

But he doesn't want anyone to go inside the sub.

And no one will. According to the U.S. Navy, all sunken U.S. ships are considered gravesites and are off-limits.

"Even if they wanted to, the divers couldn't get inside because their tanks are too big," Kenney-Augustine explained.

But Macleod said the divers don't want to go inside the submarine.

"We have no plans to explore the wreck," Macleod said. "We hope to be able to conduct non-intrusive filming only."

For the families, seeing the outside of the submarine has provided closure.

"I thought there would be a moment when they scraped the coral off and found letters: U.S.S. Lagarto," Kenney-Augustine said. "But it wasn't like that. We just sat above as they dove beneath, and I thought, `How wonderful.' It was similar to going to a cemetery and visiting a loved one who has passed and standing over his grave."

The brother and sister team did not participate in the dive because they would need special training for deep diving. Macleod and his crewmates had air mixes that included helium, and they had to take time coming up for decompression or they would suffer from the bends, or decompression sickness.

John Kenney said the submarine is sitting upright as if it sank straight down. There are no numbers or names on the side, and research shows the only place divers could find the name of the ship is inside the captain's quarters. Instead, they used the five-inch guns - an upgrade from previous subs and a good marker for the Belao class - and the slant of the bow to determine its make.

The teak deck and outer superstructure have deteriorated and been torn away, leaving the pressure hull, the conning tower, and a perfectly preserved light.

Diver Steve Burton drew a sketch showing ruptures to the port-bow area of the pressure hull, which is probably where the Hatsutaka struck.

On the port side, the middle torpedo bow tube remains open. The torpedo is missing.

"It looks like they went down fighting," John Kenney said.

Nancy Kenney hopes to find more Lagarto families so she can relate the news. She said she finally feels as if her father has been laid to rest.

"I can't tell you how wonderful the divers have been - so sensitive to the families," Nancy Kenney said. "

They even attached an American flag at the top of the tower. I thought, `God bless them for that.'"


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www.schnorkel.blogspot.com

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