Wednesday, April 09, 2008

WWII sub mystery revealed at Norwich

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Burlington Free Press
By Sam Hemingway
April 09, 2008


NORTHFIELD -- Bruce Abele, 78, stepped toward the big screen in the darkened lecture hall at Norwich University and reached out toward the watery image of a damaged submarine hatch door.

"That's very important," he told the class of 175 cadets and midshipmen, pointing to a set of arrows and the words "To Lock" on the encrusted hatch door wheel.

The class leaned forward to see what Abele was seeing.

"That proves this was not a Japanese sub," Abele said.

The tiny lettering in English, embossed on the hatch wheel of a sunken submarine 3,000 feet below the surface of the North Pacific Ocean near the Aleutian Islands, was a very big deal to Abele and his two brothers, Brad and John Abele.

It meant their search for the USS Grunion, a 312-foot attack submarine that went missing on its maiden voyage in 1942, was over.

After 65 years, they finally knew what had happened to their father, Mannett "Jim" Abele, the submarine's skipper, and the 69 sailors under his command.

"Emotions are hard to describe with words," Bruce Abele said of what it felt like to finally learn the location of the submarine his father had commanded. "It was sort of like throwing a pin at the moon."

Now, he said, comes the even harder part: determining what caused the submarine to go down.

"We haven't solved that at all," he said.

One theory, Abele told his rapt audience Tuesday, is that artillery fire from the Kano Maru, a nearby Japanese merchant vessel, hit the Grunion's periscope and disabled its sonar, locking the submarine into a fatal dive to the bottom of the ocean.

Another is that one of the torpedoes the Grunion fired at the Kano Maru circled around and struck the submarine.

The question of what happened to the Grunion is a lingering World War II naval mystery. The ship had sunk three Japanese destroyers on its first trip out of Pearl Harbor in the summer of 1942.

On July 30, it reported that it was under heavy anti-submarine fire but still had 10 torpedoes left to deploy. An American sub base at Dutch Harbor in the Aleutians ordered the Grunion to return to the base, but no one knows whether the vessel got the message.

The Navy had no clue what had happened to the Grunion and still doesn't. Even now, it won't confirm that what the Abele search found is the Grunion, although no other allied submarine was lost in the area where the wreck was located.

For years, the search by the Abele brothers for their father's ship had gone nowhere. The break came in 2002, when the family was told about an Internet posting of a report by a Japanese man, Yutaka Iwasaki.

Iwasaki's posting was a translated account from a Kano Maru ship member who described a battle with an American submarine in the area where the Grunion disappeared. After four years of research into the information provided by Iwasaki, the Abeles felt they finally could pinpoint the location of the sunken sub.

John Abele, who owns a home in Shelburne and is co-founder of Boston Scientific, a medical device company, agreed to fund the expensive exploration that led to the discovery of what they thought was the Grunion in 2006, and confirmation of the wreck in 2007.

Last year, John Abele spoke to the same class at Norwich about the Grunion case. Tuesday's appearance by Bruce Abele, who lives in Newton, Mass., was both a promised follow-up report on the matter and an appeal to the students to help solve the puzzle of why the sub sunk.

"What's made this project so remarkable is that people all over the world have collaborated on it without any formal direction," Bruce Abele said.

Tuesday's presentation at Norwich, which included never-before-seen video of the wreck taken by the underwater remote vehicle, will be repeated at the Museum of Science in Boston on May 1.


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