This Submarine Disappeared On Its First Mission – And Decades Later Divers Learned The Tragic Truth

It’s Independence Day, 1942, and a brand new sub, U.S.S. Grunion, sets sail from Midway for her first combat mission with 70 men aboard. The crew are doubtless hopeful that July 4th is an auspicious date to go to war against the Japanese enemy. But, at the end of July, their tour is to have the worst ending possible. Somewhere in the Bering Sea the Grunion and her crew of 70 disappear. And it would be decades before their fate was revealed.

After she’d weighed anchor from a spot just off the Hawaiian island of Midway Atoll, U.S.S. Grunion had set sail for what was called area Bulldog in wartime. Her mission was to cruise the seas between Japan and the island of Attu, part of the Aleutian archipelago. As she patrolled, she would be keeping a close look out for any enemy shipping she could attack.

After six days at sea, Grunion</> was cruising near the Aleutian island of Kiska, one of a group called the Rat Islands. Attu is notable as the westernmost part of the state of Alaska. The submarine had contact with the enemy on July 15, launching four of her torpedoes at a Japanese destroyer, which returned fire.

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On that same day, Grunion destroyed two Japanese anti-submarine craft. On July 30, still near Kiska but down to her last ten torpedoes, the sub was ordered back to the Alaskan naval base at Dutch Harbor. That was the last contact that Grunion made with her commanders. The Navy had no choice but to report her missing on August 16. On October 5, 1942, the authorities declared that the submarine and her 70-strong crew were presumed lost.

Before we get into the story of what happened to Grunion and how the mystery of her whereabouts was solved many years later, let’s find out a little more about the submarine. First, an explanation of the name. The grunion is a silver-colored fish about the size of a sardine found along the Pacific coast off Californian and northern Mexico. Our sub was the only U.S. naval vessel ever to carry that name.

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U.S.S. Grunion, also known as SS-216, was a submarine of the Gato class. These subs were the first to be built in large numbers for the U.S. Navy during World War Two, and 77 were commissioned from 1941 up to 1944. The name came from the leading vessel of the class, U.S.S. Gato. During the war, 20 of these vessels were lost, including the Grunion.

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The Electric Boat Company built the Grunion at its yard in Groton, Connecticut. Isaac Rice, an American Jew of German extraction, founded this naval construction firm in 1899. The company had built the U.S. Navy’s first submarine, U.S.S. Holland, which was launched in 1900. During World War Two, the Electric Boat Company built 74 submarines for the Navy.

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Margaret Hooper, a rear admiral’s wife, launched Grunion on December 22, 1941. The new sub was just short of 312 feet long and measured a little more than 27 feet across her beam. Submerged, she displaced 2,424 long tons and she was powered by four V16 diesel engines and four electric motors, all manufactured by General Motors.

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Her power units drove two propellers, and Grunion’s maximum speed under water was just over ten miles per hour, while on the surface she could cruise at nearly 25mph. She could stay submerged for up to 48 hours and was designed to be capable of cruising for 75 days before she needed to return to port. The submarine had a range of nearly 13,000 miles and had been test dived to a depth of 300 feet.

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Grunion’s main attack capability came in the shape of ten 21-inch torpedo launching tubes, with six mounted forward and four towards the stern. She could carry up to 24 torpedoes. On deck the sub was armed with a 50-caliber machine gun and two cannon, a Bofors 40mm and an Oerlikon 20mm.

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After her ceremonial launch, Grunion went through her formal U.S. Navy commissioning in April 1942 at the New London Submarine Base in Connecticut. Lieutenant Commander Mannert L. Abele took the helm. He would command the vessel right up until her tragic loss. When he took on his captain’s role there was actually little more than three months to go before Grunion’s disappearance.

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Born in Quincy, Massachusetts, Abele was an experienced mariner who’d joined the U.S. Navy at the age of 17 in 1920. In 1929, after service on battleships, he’d applied for submarine training and after qualifying served as an engineer aboard the submarine U.S.S. S-23. He served on various other subs and took his first command in 1936.

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After being commissioned, Grunion embarked on a shakedown cruise in April and May of 1942. The shakedown is a period when a boat’s teething problems are ironed out, and the crew gets a chance to familiarize themselves with the vessel. On May 24, the submarine set sail from New London for Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, a journey she was to make via the Panama Canal.

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As she sailed towards Coco Solo at the Atlantic entrance of the Panama Canal, Grunion’s look-out man spotted a lifeboat. When the submarine came alongside this vessel, it found 16 American seamen aboard her. They were survivors from the sinking of U.S. Army Transport Jack. It had fallen victim to a torpedo fired by the German submarine U-558 which had sunk her in four minutes.

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Once the crew of the Grunion had helped the shipwrecked mariners aboard their submarine, Abele set a course to the last known position of the transport ship in the hope of finding more survivors. Sadly none were spotted, although seven men were picked up later by another ship after they’d spent a grueling 32 days adrift on a raft. Of the 60 men aboard the Jack when she sank, 37 perished.

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Grunion arrived at the Coco Solo base on June 3, 1942, and dropped off the Jack survivors before sailing through the Panama Canal to the Pacific. She arrived at Pearl Harbor on June 20 and Abele was ordered to sail to the Aleutians. The submarine embarked on her first, and what would be her last, active service mission on June 30.

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As we learned earlier, from July 10, 1942, Grunion was patrolling in waters near the Aleutian island of Kiska. On that day, she was attacked by three Japanese vessels, and she believed she’d sunk all of them. After the war, Japanese records showed that she had in fact sunk two of them: Submarine Chasers 25 and 27. Although damaged,26 had escaped. Later, Abele was to be posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for this action.

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On July 30, because she had only ten torpedoes left aboard, Grunion was ordered back to base at Dutch Harbor. On the way she came across a Japanese freighter, the Kano Maru. According to a Japanese account of the action, the sub fired two torpedoes at the vessel. One missed, but the other was a hit and it caused considerable damage.

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The Kano Maru saw a third torpedo which missed her, and it was followed by three more. One of those three was wide of the target, but although the other two did hit the freighter, they failed to detonate. Grunion now surfaced, presumably to further attack the cargo ship with her deck guns. However, it seems the Kano Maru fired an accurate shot from her gun, hitting the submarine’s conning tower. This proved to be a fatal blow and the Grunion sank with all 70 hands.

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At the time, the U.S. Navy knew nothing about this engagement between Grunion and the Kano Maru. As earlier mentioned, the authorities posted the submarine as presumed missing on October 5 after they heard nothing more from her after July 30. And no more would be heard about the ill-fated submarine for 65 years.

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Perhaps nothing more would ever have been heard of Grunion at all but for three brothers, Bruce, John and Brad. They were the sons of Lieutenant Commander Abele and in 2002, prompted by an item they spotted on the internet, they decided to do their level best to find the location of the wreck of the Grunion, their father’s last resting place as well as that of the 69 submariners who sailed with him.

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The spur that set the brothers on the trail of the Grunion was an entry on the website of the Commander Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet (COMSUBPAC). New information about the Grunion had come from a Japanese man, Yutaka Iwasaki. He had translated a piece from a Japanese writer into English. In fact, it is from this source that our description of the submarine’s last engagement is drawn.

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The story of how that translated article ended up on the SUBCOMPAC website is extraordinary. The tale started in 1998 when Lieutenant Colonel Richard Lane spent $1 on wiring documentation from a World War Two Japanese merchant vessel – which happened to be the Kano Maru. Lane wanted to find out more about his diagram and so posted a message on a website dedicated to Japanese naval matters.

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And the correspondent who replied to his post was none other than Yutaka Iwasaki, the man who translated the Japanese account of Kano Maru’s encounter with Grunion. Iwasaki confirmed that the wiring document was genuine. But he also mentioned that he knew what had happened to the Grunion. His information came from the translation he’d made of a Japanese account of the sinking.

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In 1963, a Japanese magazine, Maru had published an article by a former Japanese mariner, Seiichi Aiura. The magazine had gone on to reprint the piece in 2001. And it had been spotted by our man, the naval historian Iwasaki and translated. Lane passed on the translation to COMSUBPAC. An officer there then posted this document on his organization’s website, in the section for the Grunion.

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Aiura had been the skipper of the Kano Maru on the day of its fateful encounter with the Grunion. In the translation, his piece was headlined “We Have Sunk U.S. Submarine.” And it described in detail an encounter with a U.S. submarine at the end of July, 1942. So it’s little wonder that it caught the attention of the Abele brothers.

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Aiura’s article described the Kano Maru’s position on July 30, 1942 as being just 12 miles from Kiska. It went on to detail the engagement with a submarine and its sinking. The dates and position tallied, and the Grunion was the only submarine lost at that location in the relevant timeframe. The brothers were in no doubt that the article referred to their father’s submarine.

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The Abele brothers showed Aiura’s account to Commander John Alden, a noted expert on submarines. He wrote to the Abeles, noting that the Japanese account described a large explosion when a shell from Kano Maru hit the Grunion’s conning tower. According to Alden, “Since the conning tower could not have exploded like that, I wonder if it could have been a circular run by a fourth dud torpedo.”

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In other words, Alden was speculating that the Grunion might have been sunk by one of its own malfunctioning torpedoes. We currently don’t know for sure the exact circumstances of Grunion’s demise. On the other hand, we do know what happened to the Kano Maru. She was towed into Kiska Harbor, where she was soon hit by a bomb dropped by a U.S. aircraft. Further damage from storms left it a wreck.

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So now, with all this new information about the last moments of their father’s submarine at their fingertips, the Abele brothers were more determined than ever to find the boat’s last resting place. However, it was 2006 before one of the brothers, John, met Dr. Robert Ballard. This was to be a highly significant encounter.

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For Ballard, a former U.S. Navy officer and a practicing oceanographer, had a certain amount of experience in locating wrecks. In fact, Ballard’s main claim to fame is his work as a maritime archeologist. It’s a field in which he has had some notable successes. The most well-known of those is the discovery of the wreck of the Titanic in 1985.

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Ballard was able to give advice and encouragement to the Abeles, and they decided to put up the money for an expedition to try and find the Grunion’s wreck. In 2006, a company called Williamson Associates searched the area where the evidence from the Kano Maru’s skipper indicated the Grunion might lie.

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The team used side-scan radar to scan the seabed at a depth of 3,200 feet. And sure enough, they came up with results consistent with the remains of a submarine. The next year, 2007, the Abele brothers hired an underwater exploration outfit, Deep Sea Systems International (D.S.S.I.). The company’s team used a remotely operated underwater vehicle to examine the wreck.

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D.S.S.I.’s remotely operated vehicle captured some three hours of footage of the wreck which lies on a slope. The main body of the submarine was present, but its bow was missing. The film clearly showed English lettering on the wreck. Various fittings such as drainage holes and propeller guards offered further compelling evidence that this was indeed the wreck of the Grunion.

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Speaking to TV broadcaster CBS News in 2007, John Abele said, “The most surprising thing was the damage. It was much more than we or anyone else imagined. Initially it was very hard to recognize as a ship.” We noted earlier that the Grunion had been test-dived to a depth of 300 feet. So it’s hardly surprising that its hull was crushed almost beyond recognition by the extreme pressure at a depth of more than 3,000 feet.

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In August 2008 the U.S. Navy made a statement confirming that the wreck was without doubt the stricken Grunion. In October 2008 the Science Daily website quoted the words of Bruce Abele, “This discovery has come about through a stream of seemingly improbable events; it’s like we won the lottery ten times in a row. It is so dramatic to see the underwater photo and be certain it was in fact Grunion.”

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So one mystery, the location of the Grunion, had been solved. Or at least partially solved. What was still unknown was the location of the submarine’s bow, which was conspicuous by its absence from the main wreck site. That puzzle prompted the Lost 52 Project to get involved in the hunt for the rest of the submarine in 2018. This organization is dedicated to searching the seas of the world for undiscovered U.S. Navy submarine wrecks.

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In October 2018 a Lost 52 Project team returned to the Grunion wreck site to search for the bow – and they found it. It had slipped down the steep slope where the main body of the submarine lay, coming to rest about a quarter-mile from the rest of the wreck. And while they were searching for the bow, the Lost 52 team took the opportunity to carry out some sophisticated imaging work.

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The researchers used advanced imaging equipment to create stunning three-dimensional pictures of the Grunion’s wreckage. The resulting images were then passed on to the Abele family. Lost 52’s Tim Taylor told news network CNN about the impact on the family of seeing these eerily precise images for the first time, some 75 years after the submarine was lost.

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Speaking to the TV station in July 2019, Taylor said, “When we brought it back to the family, it opened up so much more understanding of what happened and why it sank and what happened to the submarine.” And Taylor hoped that by analyzing the incredibly detailed 3-D images, experts may at last be able to piece together exactly what happened to the Grunion back in 1942.

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