John Abele and the search for the USS Grunion
Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy Photography
John Abele was 5 years old when his mother Catherine received the telegram from Washington, D.C. It was September 29, 1942.
“The Navy Department deeply regrets to inform you that your husband Lieutenant Commander Mannert Lincoln Abele United States Navy is missing . . .”
Mannert Abele — everyone called him Jim — was the 39-year-old commander of the USS Grunion, a submarine that disappeared while on patrol in a Japanese-controlled area of the north Pacific. The last anyone heard from the Grunion was July 30, 1942, when Jim Abele and his crew were ordered to return to Dutch Harbor, a naval base in the Aleutian Islands.
They never made it.
John Abele doesn’t remember his father, although he and his older brothers, Brad and Bruce, heard plenty of stories about the sub commander while they were growing up near Boston. Abele, who now lives in Shelburne, went on to found Boston Scientific Corp., which makes and markets high-tech medical devices. The company is known as a fearless innovator, and its success has made Abele, who retired a few years ago, a billionaire.
Meanwhile, for most of John Abele’s life, the disappearance of the Grunion and its crew seemed destined to remain a mystery. The Navy appeared to have little information about the missing ship, and the Abele family didn’t know where to turn for answers. “Occasionally we’d ask the questions,” Abele recalls one recent afternoon over tea at the Sheraton Hotel in Burlington. “But basically it was classic World War II missing-in-action. In all the records, it was ‘lost with all hands on board, unknown causes.’”
Then, in 2002, 60 years after the Grunion went down, Abele received a new tip in a most improbable way. It led him into an intense 6-year odyssey that culminated on August 22, 2007, when a search team headed by Abele himself located the Grunion in the Bering Sea, off the coast of Kiska in the Aleutian Islands.
“My brother’s son’s girlfriend’s boss was a World War II hobbyist,” Abele explains. “He told her he had discovered a posting on an Internet website that described an encounter between a Japanese freighter and a submarine near Kiska.”
It was a translation of an article written by the captain of the freighter, the Kano Maru, and published in an obscure Japanese maritime journal in 1963.
According to the captain’s account, at 5:47 a.m. on July 31, 1942, an unnamed American submarine fired four torpedoes at the Kano Maru. Three hit their mark, but only one exploded, crippling the freighter’s engine. When the submarine surfaced to finish the attack, the freighter opened fire with a deck cannon, hitting the submarine’s conning tower, the raised platform from which an officer navigates the vessel.
As the ship vanished beneath the waves, a “swell of heavy oil” spread across the water, according to the freighter captain’s account. “All crews shout, ‘BANZAI!’” he reports.
The article was translated by Utaka Iwasaki, a history buff and naval architect in Japan. Abele tracked down Iwasaki’s email address and began a correspondence that eventually brought together more than 1000 people — naval experts, veterans, historians, genealogists and relatives of the crew — in pursuit of a common cause: finding the USS Grunion.
“We’d never have done this without the Japanese,” Abele says. “And it never would have happened before the Internet.”
In 2005, Abele was preparing to retire from Boston Scientific when he met Bob Ballard, the underwater archaeologist who discovered the wrecks of the Titanic, the battleship Bismarck and the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown.
Abele asked Ballard if it might be possible to put together an expedition to find the Grunion. Ballard had some ideas, Abele recalls, but previous commitments prevented him from taking the job himself. “He did tell me, ‘I wouldn’t take it on unless I was really confident,’” Abele says. “And he said that, from what I’d presented [to] him, we didn’t have enough to work with.”
That changed when Iwasaki visited the Japanese defense archives, where he found more records of the Kano Maru’s encounter with the American sub. The documents, which had been misfiled, included a series of hand-drawn diagrams that gave the precise location of the battle. “I said, ‘Look, I can do this,’” Abele remembers. “But we’re going to do it in an entrepreneurial way.”
Through friends of his brother Bruce, John Abele secured the services of the Aquila, a crab boat based in Seattle. He also commissioned a side-scan sonar device to scour the ocean floor for the wreck. In August 2006, the Aquila sailed 2600 miles to the tip of the Aleutian Islands. The crew provided daily status reports on the search via a website, ussgrunion.com. After more than a week, the sonar picked up an oblong object with features that resembled a conning tower and a periscope.
Back on the mainland, Abele used computer software to analyze the sonar images. He also tapped the website to solicit “the wisdom of crowds,” a reference to a 2004 book by James Surowiecki. In addition to generating hundreds of blog entries and comments, Abele received about 3000 emails, offering information on everything from battle tactics to the backstory of the Grunion — which had managed to sink several Japanese ships before it disappeared.
“There was a fascinating assemblage of people interested in this,” Abele says. “People who understood cooperation, who did not have an ego investment in our success and were interested in learning more about a historical event.”
Abele’s “crowd” included three women — distant relatives of Grunion crew members — who began tracking down the families of the missing sailors. It took more than 18 months, but the women managed to find relatives of all 69 members of Jim Abele’s crew. “It was hard enough to get the original names from the Navy,” Abele says, “but they did . . . They ended up, in most cases, writing a story for the local newspaper, asking for help.”
In August 2007, Abele and a search team returned to the Bering Sea with a remote-operated vehicle. The crew waited out two days of bad weather before it was able to lower the ROV down to the site, where an onboard camera projected images to the surface. Photos of the ship’s stern seemed to show it had been outfitted with “prop guards,” fence-like additions that protect a sub’s propellers when it docks.
“The Navy people said it couldn’t have been prop guards because they were removed from all the subs,” Abele says. “But we had access to a retired admiral who said, ‘That’s true, but the order to remove them didn’t come until September 1942 — your dad’s ship was lost at the end of July 1942.’”
While Abele was convinced he had found the USS Grunion, the U.S. Navy, which had shown no real interest in the search, wasn’t so sure. “There was always a sense [from the Navy] that ‘We don’t trust people like this,’” Abele recalls. “Unless it’s done the official way, it doesn’t exist.”
But more than a year later, on October 3, 2008, the Navy bowed to the evidence and announced that the Grunion had been located. A week later, more than 200 people gathered in downtown Cleveland on the deck of the USS Cod, the Grunion’s sister sub, to honor the crew’s sacrifice.
For Abele, who will discuss his search next week at the Main Street Landing Performing Arts Center, the ceremony was the symbolic end to a decades-long mystery. It was also a validation of his belief that, no matter the barriers, a committed group of people can accomplish what might seem impossible.
“Occasionally in life you’re given an opportunity to do something, and you gotta make a decision, yes or no,” he says. “This was one of those . . . There was somebody who wanted us to find this submarine.”