Monday, March 13, 2006

Lost, then found

By Herb Meeker
March 10, 2006

Former Mattoon resident among those who died aboard submarine more than 60 years ago

MATTOON --A Michigan woman is reaching out to this community to help memorialize a sailor who died aboard an American submarine nearly 61 years ago off the coast of Thailand.

A former resident of Mattoon, James Henry McDonald was one of 86 sailors and officers aboard the USS Lagarto, which was sunk by a Japanese depth charge in May 1945 during an attack on a Japanese Navy convoy in the Gulf of Siam. A diving expedition last year discovered the Lagarto 200 feet beneath the South China Sea with the help of fishermen’s reports of snagged nets and archival accounts from the Japanese Navy citing a submarine being sunk in that area.

On May 5-7, the Wisconsin Maritime Museum, in Manitowoc, where dozens of U.S. submarines were built during the Second World War, will host a memorial service for the Lagarto crew. It will take place aboard a World War II submarine permanently moored at the museum in honor of the city’s contribution to the war effort.

“The story of the Lagarto is coming full circle with the ceremony in Manitowoc where the sub was built,” said Nancy Kenney, whose father was one of the Lagarto’s crew. “We’re expecting about 100 families. I’m told this will be the largest gathering of this kind for families of MIAs in the United States.”

Naval historians believe a Japanese minelayer attacked the sub, and damage visible to divers indicates the ship scored a direct hit with a depth charge, Kenney said. The ship was listed as missing when it did not arrive back to port in Australia. Family members received word that relatives were “missing and presumed dead” in the summer of 1945, but with the hope for finding survivors on islands or in Japanese prison camps, the official determination that no crew member escaped alive came in 1946, she explained.

“The letter from the government in 1946 is the last notice I know of the families receiving,” Kenney said.

Crew members from the Lagarto came from more than 30 states so the search for family members to inform them of the submarine’s discovery has become a national effort for researchers like Kenney, whose father, Bill Mabin, was also a crew member. From her home in Leelanau, Mich., Kenney has been contacting relatives of the Lagarto crew by phone, mail and e-mail. It has been an emotional rollercoaster for her each time she makes contact with another relative -- she has contacted kin of 41 crew members so far.

“I feel I know these men now,” Kenney said. “This has been a very difficult experience. I know when I found out about the sub being found I cried because I finally knew what happened to my father. It is overwhelmingly rewarding and sad as you contact families. Many of them recall how devastating this was on their grandparents, parents or aunts and uncles. I’ve had one man sobbing over the phone when he recalled what this meant to his family.”

Kenney said there are more questions on James H. McDonald now than answers. That is why she contacts local newspapers. They have helped inform families of the Lagarto discovery and they eventually reach her.

In Mattoon, McDonald’s name is listed on the war memorial with dozens of other names in front of City Hall. A James McDonald is also shown as a junior with light hair and a caught-by-surprise smile in the 1942 edition of the Mattoon High School Riddle Yearbook, but he is not listed with his classmates in the 1943 Riddle as a graduating senior, one classmate said.

“You know a lot of guys left for the military before they graduated so he might have been there for graduation,” said Don Hutton, an MHS 1943 graduate, who now lives in Charleston. “I have to say I just don’t recall anything about James McDonald.”

Three other classmates contacted this week said much the same. No relatives came forward when a letter on McDonald’s tie to the Lagarto was published recently in the Journal Gazette and Times-Courier.

Kenney said her research indicates McDonald’s military record listed a grandfather, Henry McDonald. Henry was listed in the 1942 Mattoon city directory as a conductor for the New York Central Railroad. But an American Legion record of local war dead in the Local History Room at Mattoon Public Library listed Andrew McDonald as a father. Birth records at City Hall are not open to non-relatives.

“I’m wondering if he was an orphan with the listing of his grandfather as next of kin,” Kenney said.

So Kenney and others are hoping relatives or friends of McDonald come forward to offer more information on his background. In addition, she hopes someone can come to the May memorial service in Manitowoc. McDonald is one of six men from Illinois who served on the Lagarto, a figure that matches Michigan as the second-most number of crew members from one state. Kenney’s father had ties to Illinois in LaGrange so she wants to complete the family searches for McDonald and other Illinoisans from Chicago and Rockford lost in 1945.

“I’m determined to find as many of the Illinois men as possible,” she said.



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