Sunday, January 01, 2006

From the depths, a mystery no longer

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Leelanau Enterprise
By Eric Carlson
June 23, 2005


The USS Lagarto.

For Nancy Mabin Kenney of Lake Leelanau, Father’s Day this year was the first she can remember with the knowledge of exactly where her father has been for the past six decades.

His remains are in a submarine built on the shores of Lake Michigan in 1944 that was sunk by a Japanese minelayer in the South China Sea in 1945, shortly before the end of World War II.Some 60 years after it went down, the USS Lagarto (SS-731) was located just weeks ago under 220 feet of saltwater in the Gulf of Thailand by a professional diver from Great Britain who recently reported his discovery through the U.S. Naval attache in Bangkok.

Kenney’s biological father, Signalman First Class William T. Mabin, was among the 86 U.S. Navy submariners believed to have perished in the boat during a battle between American and Japanese naval forces on May 3, 1945.

Mabin’s only child, Nancy, was just two years old at the time.

“It’s always been a fact of my life that my father died in the war,” Kenney said. “Unfortunately, I have no direct memory of him. I have often felt sadness at the loss of my father, but have never really mourned him until now – now that I know where he is.” Kenney said that news of the submarine’s discovery last month by civilian divers off the coast of Thailand has taken its toll on her emotionally – and on her mother, 88-year-old Margaret Chambers of Glen Arbor Township.

Kenney said she spent some time with her mother on Father’s Day, going through boxes full of letters her father sent during the war and correspondence the family received in the 1940s from other families affected by the sinking of the Lagarto and the loss of its crew.

“Communication was slow back then,” Kenney pointed out. “Getting information was difficult; and some mystery about the fate of the submarine and its crew has always remained. My Father’s Day gift will be to do everything I can to find out what happened so long ago, and to be an advocate to ensure these sailors receive the honors they deserve.”

Kenney found out about the discovery of the wreck of the Lagarto via the Internet through a website devoted to World War II submarines that her son had accessed. Professional divers in Thailand reported that they’d been asked to investigate why fishermen’s nets were being snagged on the seabed near what historical records revealed to be the last known position of the USS Lagarto.

Diver Jamie Macleod of Great Britain operates a diving school on the island of Koh Tao, Thailand. Contacted by the Enterprise via e-mail, Macleod said he became aware years ago that the wreck of the USS Lagarto was in his vicinity, but actually finding her was “beyond a dream.”

He said new boats and equipment recently acquired by his company made the discovery possible. “We began with the last known position and then cross-referenced with fishermen’s marks,” Macleod explained. “I can’t describe to you the feeling of bumping into the bow of the wreck.” He said the wreck “is perfectly upright and seems to be intact...” Macleod, 43, said that in the years he’s been involved in shipwreck exploration, “this is by far the most important find.”

Kenney said she has yet to hear from the U.S. Navy about Macleod’s discovery of the submarine and has written letters to members of Congress seeking more information. “I certainly hope the Navy will see fit to honor these sailors and remember their families,” Kenney said.

A spokesman for the U.S. Pacific Fleet Submarine Command in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, Lieutenant Commander Jeff Davis, told the Enterprise that Navy officials had been made aware of the discovery of the submarine through official channels and would take “appropriate action.”

Davis said the latitude and longitude of the wreck had been known since the end of World War II; but he was not aware if anyone before Macleod had ever fixed the wreck’s position precisely and dived down to take a look.

During World War II, some 52 U.S. Navy submarines were lost in action, along with 3,544 crewmen. Davis pointed out that the names of each of them, including SM-1 William T. Mabin of the USS Lagarto, are inscribed on a submarine memorial in Pearl Harbor where a ceremony was conducted just last month on Memorial Day.

In Wisconsin – where the submarine was built – May 3 was designated USS Lagarto Remembrance Day in Wisconsin following action by a submarine veterans group.

USS Lagarto was one of many submarines produced during World War II by the Manitowoc Shipbuilding Co. in Manitowoc, Wis. The submarine was launched May 28, 1944, in Lake Michigan. After test trials and training in Lake Michigan, Lagarto entered a floating drydock and was floated down the Mississippi River to New Orleans, where it departed for the Pacific.

Kenney said she spent a little time with her father at New London, Conn., and at Manitowoc, before he went off to war.

“All my life, I never really knew my father, but the people who knew him well kept him alive in my memory,” Kenney said. “To think of what my mother’s generation went through with all the uncertainty during the war is just overwhelming. But now it’s up to my generation to support these men and make sure they’re honored,” she said.


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