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Family of sunken WWII sub captain found boat, closure

Sep. 7, 2013 - 01:05PM   |  
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NEW ORLEANS — In July 1942, about two months after Japan invaded the Aleutian Islands, a U.S. submarine on patrol near Kiska attacked and disabled the armed Japanese merchant ship Kano Maru. But the USS Grunion never returned.

An account by the Kano Maru’s military commander states that the Grunion sank after an 80 mm shell hit near its conning tower. He continued, “We saw the swell of heavy oil. All crews shout ‘BANZAI!’”

But many question whether that anti-aircraft shell would have sunk the sub. A malfunctioning torpedo or other equipment problems are suspected, but why the Grunion was lost may never be known with certainty.

For 64 years, it lay lost with 70 men, including the captain, Lt. Cmdr. Mannert “Jim” Abele.

After years of searching for information about their father, Boston Scientific co-founder John Abele and his brothers mounted two expeditions to the Bering Sea. The first, in 2006, found something at the bottom. The second, in 2007, proved it was the Grunion.

John Abele and Mary Bentz, a crewman’s niece, will talk about the search Wednesday at the National World War II Museum.

It’s a story of far-flung collaboration and wild improbabilities, Abele said.

What Abele calls “the improbables” include finding a Japanese researcher through a brother’s son’s girlfriend’s boss; locating the boat’s bell in the Greenville, Miss., welcome center — where it’s still displayed; and contacting the mother and sons of a Japanese captain whose submarine chaser was sunk by the Grunion before the sub attacked the Kano Maru.

Abele’s brothers, Bruce and Brad, were 14 and 9 when the Grunion sank. John Abele was 5, and barely remembers his dad. “He was away a lot of the time. That’s the Navy,” he said. “I remember I got pennies for brushing my teeth.”

He said Brad Abele began research in the 1990s, talking to retired Navy men who had known their father or were in the 14-month campaign to recover Attu and Kiska islands from the Japanese.

Japan took the islands days before attacking Midway Island. Many historians think the maneuver was designed to divert U.S. forces from the central Pacific. The Imperial Japanese Fleet, under Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto, targeted Midway as a stepping stone to Hawaii. Japan hoped taking the strategic base at Midway and destroying the few U.S. aircraft carriers in the Pacific would force the United States out of the war, giving Japan a free hand in the Far East.

But American code-breakers working for Yamamoto’s counterpart, Adm. Chester Nimitz, knew where the Japanese fleet was heading. Nimitz positioned his aircraft carriers to pounce. In a duel by carrier-launched aircraft in June 1942 off Midway, Japan lost four carriers while the United States lost one, the Yorktown. Historians view the battle as a turning point in the Pacific war.

The Japanese met much less resistance in occupying the Aleutians far to the north.

“In retrospect, we might done better just by giving it to them,” Abele said. “It’s a pretty desolate area, cold and uncomfortable. But the Navy launched a campaign to recover those islands. That was the job of the Grunion.”

The Abeles’ search had almost as much drama as Nimitz’s trap.

Brad Abele wrote up what he’d learned, and Bruce’s son’s girlfriend gave a copy to her boss, a World War II buff. He, in turn, found an Internet posting about a confrontation between a submarine and an armed Japanese merchant ship. John Abele tracked down the document’s translator, Yutaka Iwasaki, in 2002.

Iwasaki’s research turned up the Kano Maru’s log, “misfiled in the Japanese national defense archives,” Abele said. It included a map showing roughly where ship and sub met, narrowing the search area from more than a million square miles to about 200. The ship’s logged path and speed narrowed the window to about 20 square miles, Abele said.

A few years later, Abele heard oceanographer Robert Ballard describe finding the wreck of the liner Titanic. Abele talked with him afterward and decided that his family could find the Grunion. Ballard told him that August was the only month to search the Bering Sea.

The brothers hired a crab boat and a sonar research group for an August 2006 venture. Sonar turned up a contact, but it was unclear whether it was the Grunion.

Bentz, of Bethesda, Md., read about the expedition and called Bruce Abele. Her uncle, Grunion torpedoman Carmine Anthony Parziale, had died before Bentz was born, but she grew up hearing stories about him.

She offered to help find other crewmen’s families. She and others worked the Internet and hit the phones, calling chambers of commerce, schools and people who lived near a family’s former address.

Only two families hadn’t been located in August 2007, when Bruce and John took a remote-controlled underwater vehicle to the sonar contact site.

Even in August, the sea was generally too choppy to risk putting the $1 million machine over the side, John Abele said. But one evening, it calmed. “We went out that evening and worked all night,” he said. It takes a while for an ROV to get 3,000 feet down. But 20 minutes after it touched bottom, they found an imploded submarine.

With Russian and Japanese subs also sunk in the islands, it took more research to confirm the boat was the Grunion.

Abele said final proof came in photographs showing the wreck had stern propeller guards — devices removed from U.S. submarines in September 1942.

While the Abeles were up north, Bentz sent information to newspapers in the last two men’s hometowns, Detroit and Asheville, N.C. The Asheville article brought a call.

Then in Michigan, Bentz got onto a radio talk show. A woman coming home with groceries heard the name Byron Allen Traviss and called.

Abele said, “We discovered the name of the last person the day we discovered the submarine.”

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