Saga of a lost sub
By Jennifer Gentile
September 24, 2007
The telegram relayed the news every serviceman's family dreads - a beloved brother, son and friend was missing in military action and likely never to be seen again.
Now 93 years old, Lenore Gearhart of Vacaville recalls receiving such a document after her brother's submarine, the USS Grunion, was reported missing in the summer of 1942, at the height of World War II.
"The Navy Department deeply regrets to inform you that ... Seaman Second Class Lawrence Dale Deaton, U.S. Navy, born in Ames, Iowa, on Feb. 8, 1920, is missing in the performance of his duty and the service of his country," the somber message explained. "The department appreciates your anxiety, but details are not now available.
Gearhart remembers her reaction with clarity - even more than six decades later.
"It was shock, sorrow, grief; I almost had a nervous breakdown," she recalled. "War is a terrible thing anyway, and then to lose someone, it's worse."
The telegram came directly to Gearhart, then in her mid-20s and living in Vacaville with her husband, which left her with the unenviable task of sharing it with family members and others close to her brother.
"We were afraid to tell my mom because she had a bad heart," she said. While her mother took the news better than expected, Gearhart said, "My dad never recovered. He went downhill after that."
For 65 years, Deaton's family and those of about 70 other sailors were in the dark about the Grunion's disappearance.
Named after a family of fish native to the West Coast, the submarine was commissioned in April 1942. According to the Naval Historical Center, the Grunion rescued 16 survivors of the U.S. Army Transport Jack, which was torpedoed by a German U-boat, before continuing on to Hawaii and ultimately Alaska's Aleutian Islands.
After reporting Japanese anti-submarine activity near Kiska in July, 1942, and being ordered to return to the base at Dutch Harbor, the Grunion was never heard from again. Her fate remained a maritime mystery - until recently.
Since a search began in August of 2006, sonar technology revealed a wreck beneath the waters of the North Pacific. The location of the find, at the tip of the Aleutian chain and in the vicinity of three Japanese wrecks, is consistent with the probable resting place of the Grunion.
The Abele brothers, whose father was commander of the ill-fated sub, mounted the search. The story of their quest aired in a segment last week on the NBC's Today Show and is thoroughly documented online at www.ussgrunion.com.
Based in Massachusetts, Bruce Abele said the project owes much to Navy buff and interpreter Yutaka Iwasaki, who found and translated an article in an obscure maritime magazine describing a confrontation between the sub and a Japanese cargo ship.
"It gave us a viable hypothesis for what happened," Abele said, "More importantly, it gave us a location." Armed with more than three hours of high-quality footage and hundreds of photographs, Abele said, "now we're in the process of putting this together in such a way that we can get some ex-submariners to take a look and try to figure out what happened to the sub."
He estimates that about 25 feet of the bow is gone from the Grunion, which is in a generally sorry state.
"To our surprise, it's been crushed pretty badly," he said. "We expected it to be intact."
Explaining how sure he is that he found his father's lost charge, Abele joked, "I'm not 100 percent certain the sun is going to rise in the east, but its roughly equivalent to that." Aside from the wreck's location, Abele said further proof of its identity are the presence of prop guards like those on the missing sub.
According to the Web site devoted to the search, the tale has also piqued the interest of the History Channel, National Geographic, Reader's Digest and numerous other venues.
While the Abele brothers combed the sea for answers, a trio of women calling themselves "The Sub Ladies" conducted a search of its own. The group, composed of Mary Bentz of Bethesda, Md., Rhonda Raye of Cartersville, Ga., and Vickie Rodgers of Mayfield, Ky., each of whom had lost a relative in the tragedy, set about finding the families of all of the Grunion's crew members.
"We're three women who've never met each other and live in different parts of the United States," Bentz said. "It's been a wonderful experience."
Describing the devastating effect the loss of her uncle, Carmine Anthony Parziale, had on her family, Bentz said, "The Grunion went down two years before I was born, but I've known about it all my life. My father would mention him and he would get emotional about it - the same as his siblings." Bentz added that her grandmother, on her death bed, said, "The fish ate my son."
Bentz and her partners reached out to other Grunion families by any means available - including newspapers and radio talk shows.
"It was something my dad would have wanted me to do," she said. "But it was not very long into this project that these men became alive to all of us. All of them are our family."
The "Sub Ladies" located Gearhart via an e-mail from her grandson, Bentz said. One of Gearhart's grandsons served in the Coast Guard, and was well apprised of his family's connection to the Grunion.
When he ventured into the frigid waters off the Alaskan coast, "he'd say, 'I've got a great uncle down there," according to his grandmother.
Gearhart's brother had been married about a year when he disappeared, and his wife had moved back in with her family when he shipped out. Only 22 when he died, Deaton left no children behind.
"At first, I just couldn't get it off my mind; it was hard to take," Gearhart acknowledged, adding, "He was a great person. We were just broken-hearted when he was lost; everybody liked him."
However, at least in Gearhart's case, there is truth to the axiom "Time heals all wounds."
"You get over grief," she said. "I don't feel the real deep sorrow that I used to."
For Bentz and others, the Abele brothers' discovery has afforded them some measure of peace.
"People tell me they're getting sympathy cards, Mass cards ... ," she said. "It's closure - now we know what happened."