Reviewed by Richard Raymond
RICHARD RAYMOND is a former Marine who also served as historian for the 116th Infantry, Virginia Army National Guard.
Few places on Earth are more bleak and forbidding than the Western Aleutians, American outposts in the stormy Bering Sea. But in May 1942, the Japanese staged amphibious landings on Kiska and Attu, two of the worst, as a diversion from the planned invasion of Midway, and in response, U.S. Pacific Fleet Commander Nimitz ordered a half dozen submarines to the area, to intercept and sink enemy warships and merchant vessels. Among these was the USS Grunion, a new Gato Class fleet boat, commanded by Lt. Commander Mannert L. “Jim” Abele, with a crew of seven officers and 62 sailors, on her first war patrol.
After a series of violent encounters, all contact with Grunion was lost, and the Navy sent grim telegrams to members of the crew’s families, “We regret to inform you … .” They were listed as “missing in action,” and despite pleas from wives and children, no further information was offered, for a chasm of silence lasting 65 years.
As far as official sources concerned themselves, the boat was now, as submariners all too well knew, on “Eternal Patrol,” somewhere in the deeps off northeastern Kiska.
Yet the mystery lingered, what had happened to Grunion, and why? Abele’s wife and sons never wavered in their fierce determination to answer those questions, and this modest volume details the amazing search for the truth, against of what must be seen as official Navy indifference at best, at worst outright hostility.
The finding of that boat, and unveiling of that truth, should have caused shivers to the spines of those engaged in a cover-up — though few of them survive today.
After the loss, Abele’s wife, Catherine “Kay,” made it her duty to send letters of condolence to each of the new widows and grieving parents, and to bombard Naval Headquarters with requests for answers, a task in which her young sons, Brad, Bruce and John, heartily joined. The months, then years and decades passed, without a satisfactory reply. But in 2006, the time arrived when those sons, now fortified with ample means, both financial and technological, were able to recommence their quest.
And the tale of that quest is admirably laid out in Stevens’ book, excellently researched and engagingly written, with eight pages of chapter notes, a four-page bibliography and 14 pages of photos, both current and archival. Among the strange, almost fate-directed discoveries was contact with a Japanese historian, who found a chart by the master of Kano Maru, one of Grunion’s intended victims, pinpointing the spot where the lost submarine had gone down. The sense of destiny is evident in this: “A man [John Abele] whose entire professional life has revolved around hard facts and science, has slowly come to see another aspect of the Grunion’s story ‘ ‘Something wanted us to find that boat — they wanted to be found.’ ”
Not less noteworthy was the parallel search by several of the “Sub Ladies” to locate and contact every one of the families of crewmen.
With this information, painstaking planning, the most modern underwater search apparatus, a vast outlay of funds and an even greater portion of luck, in the face of daunting sea and weather conditions, John and Bruce, with their skilled and dedicated team, were enabled to view the boat and bring back detailed photos of the wreck. And with it strong evidence that the true cause of Grunion’s sinking was not a shell fired from the Japanese vessel, but a defective torpedo, which circled around after launching and struck the conning tower without exploding, bringing on flooding, damage to the diving planes, electrical failure, release of deadly chlorine gas, and at last a dive into pressures which crushed the hull like a sardine can.
The Navy’s long refusal to acknowledge the possibility of malfunctioning torpedoes, despite damning evidence, does them little credit.
A tragic but heroic tale, well told.