Ten years ago, Air Force Lt. Col. Richard Lane walked into an antiques shop and plunked down a dollar for an old Japanese electrical diagram of a ship’s winch. On the back of the illustration was a note, handwritten in English: “Wiring diagram of deck winch on Kano Maru.” A military history junkie, Lane could find no mention of a Japanese freighter called Kano Maru in the usual sources. In 2001, still curious, he posted a query about the ship on a military history website, j-aircraft.com. Within days, a Japanese amateur historian responded. His account of an embattled Kano Maru, which supplied Imperial forces in the Aleutian Islands, would satisfy more than one man’s curiosity.
It would set in motion an emotional search for the USS Grunion, an American submarine that disappeared during World War II.
The skipper of the newly commissioned Grunion was 38-year-old Lt. Comdr. Mannert L. Abele. As a boy, Mannert didn’t much care for his given name and decided that Jim was a better fit. And so it was that on May 24, 1942, a Sunday, Jim Abele invited his wife and three young sons for dinner at his submarine base in New London, Connecticut.
There was nothing out of the ordinary about the meal. No grand gestures or pronouncements, just the mundane chitchat of families. And in hindsight, that’s what was so strange.
After the meal, Commander Abele sent his wife, Catherine, and their three sons — Bruce, 12, Brad, 9, and John, 5 — home, saying he had “important work” to finish up.
Word of the Grunion’s departure came that evening, when another officer’s wife telephoned the Abele house to say she’d just spotted the sub heading out to sea. The Grunion’s mission was so top secret, its departure orders couldn’t even be disclosed to the commander’s wife.
“We all knew that Jim would be in the thick of things as soon as he could get his boat ready to go to sea,” writes Brad Abele in his memoir of his father, Jim. “However, as things turned out, it was the last time we were ever to see him.”
Pain and Denial
The summer passed without the Abeles hearing from their husband and father. When news finally did come, on September 30, the boys were outside playing football. Their mother called them in to listen as she read a telegram from the Navy: Commander Abele was “missing following action in the performance of his duty and in the service of his country.” Across America, 69 other families received the same notice.
After the disappearance of the Grunion, times were hard. Catherine Abele struggled to support her sons by teaching music in her home. She never borrowed money — “It wouldn’t be done,” says son Bruce — and all the while clung to the belief that as long as the Grunion was missing, there was reason for hope.
When a death benefit check arrived from the government, “my mother sent it back,” says Brad. “If you cashed it, you bought into the contract, the deal that your husband had died. And she never bought into that deal.”
Nor did other Grunion families. “My mother never remarried either,” says Nancy Kornahrens Stark, daughter of William Kornahrens, a lieutenant on the sub. “That was true for many of the wives of the Grunion. They stayed married to their husbands. They believed their husbands were just missing.”
The mystery wouldn’t stop gnawing at Nancy Stark. “I never knew my father,” she says. “If you don’t know your dad, then who are you?”
Finally, a Clue
The Japanese historian who responded to Lt. Col. Richard Lane’s request for information on the Kano Maru sent these notes about a battle that took place off Kiska, an island in the Aleutians, in 1942.
05:47 Torpedoed by submarine Grunion (SS-216). One hit at machinery room starboard; main engine and generator stopped.
05:57 Second torpedo came but passed below the ship.
06:07 Third and fourth torpedoes came, hit forebridge and amidships on the port, but both duds. Grunion surfaced. Kano Maru’s forecastle gun fired; fourth shot hit the conning tower of the sub. It is thought the last of Grunion.
One Last Shot
At 10:20 p.m. on August 22, 2007, the ROV, the Max Rover, was set into the sea, just a few miles off Kiska’s shore. It was an odd hour to start a search. But since leaving port the day before, the violent Bering Sea — of Discovery Channel’sDeadliest Catch fame — had gone almost supernaturally flat calm. No one was about to let this opportunity pass.
In the water, the Max Rover, lights on and propellers fired up, swam smoothly and silently away like an enormous yellow puppy.
Next came the waiting. In the wheelhouse of theAquila, John Abele, bouncing on the balls of his feet, watched the blizzard of flotsam dots drift through the closed-circuit video that streamed from the Max Rover’s array of high-definition cameras. As the ROV descended, Kiska’s lonely and mysterious sea life, including orange jellyfish the size of basketballs and startled black cod, glowed in the lights.
An hour later, the Max Rover finally reached the seafloor, more than 3,000 feet below. On-screen, the grayish volcanic soil bed could be seen, naked and punctuated by the gray flatness of a haddock or a grumpy-looking crab, its claws extended toward the Rover’s floodlights.
“We’ve got a target out at 045 degrees and about 60 meters,” said Joe Caba, the Max Rover’s pilot.
Slowly the object emerged. Through the darkness of the Bering Sea depths, the lights of the Max Rover fell on a mass of twisted and rusty metal standing proud on the empty seafloor, bejeweled by orange starfish. It was a submarine conning tower, or what was left of one. Around it, pipes and hoses snaked across the ship’s double hull, laid bare as some of the sub’s outer skin had been stripped away. …
“But over time, the sadness was replaced by a kind of gratitude, an acceptance and a sense of peace. My life of not knowing was over.”
John Abele agrees, adding that finding his father’s sub was “a humbling experience. And humbling experiences are often the most rewarding.”
Then he smiled. Kiska had finally given up its most guarded secret.