On 11 April 1942, USS GRUNION (SS-216) was commissioned at Electric Boat Company in Groton, CT. It would have been difficult to imagine on that day of new beginnings that the new sub had less than four months to live.
On 24 May, GRUNION set off for the Pacific, pausing before passing through the Panama Canal to rescue sixteen survivors of an American transport vessel, USAT JACK, which had been sunk by the German U-boat U-558; sadly, she was unable to find thirteen others who were reported to have made it off the ship alive. She dropped the men off at Coco Solo, a Navy Base in the Panama Canal Zone (where future senator John McCain would be born in 1936), and continued on to Pearl Harbor for training.
Although we tend to think of World War II subs prowling the warm Pacific, several boats headed north into much cooler waters. GRUNION was among them—her first war patrol was to take place among the Aleutian Islands off the coast of Alaska. Although she was attacked by a Japanese destroyer off Kiska Island, the sub bounced back, sinking two patrol boats. But as July drew to a close, she reported heavy antisubmarine activity and her superiors, loath to lose their new boat, called her back to Dutch Harbor. But no response to the order came and searchers in the area turned up nothing. On 5 October, 69 years ago today, GRUNION was reported as overdue and presumed lost. Examinations of Japanese records after the war showed no antisubmarine attacks on American subs in her area at the time of her loss, leaving the cause of her demise a mystery for over sixty years.
GRUNION’s commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Mannert Abele, was survived by three sons—Bruce, John, and Brad—all of whom became committed to the search for their father’s final resting place. John, the founder of Boston Scientific, was able to contribute the funds that kept the effort alive. But it was largely fruitless until Yutaka Iwasaki, a Japanese sailor who had been aboard a troop transport, Kano Maru, at about the time GRUNION was thought to have gone down, came forward to talk about his experience on or about 31 July 1942. On that day, an American sub thought to be GRUNION fired four torpedoes at the transport, only one of which detonated, then came to the surface to dispatch their victim with gunfire. But, Iwasaki claimed, Kano Maru returned fire and sent the sub to the bottom with a single direct hit to her conning tower from the ship’s three-inch deck gun. (American investigators advanced another theory: GRUNION was sunk, indirectly, by one of her own torpedoes. Three of the four fish GRUNION launched, these investigators claim, bounced off the enemy ship without doing any damage. The fourth circled back and plowed into the sub’s periscopes. Although it did not explode, the combination of the hit and a jammed rear dive plane sent GRUNION spiraling into the depths.)
Armed with Iwasaki’s information, Abele’s sons redoubled their search efforts. In August of 2006, Bruce received sonar images from Aquila, the vessel conducting the operation, depicting what the Boston Globe described as “a smooth, oblong object with features that could be a conning tower and periscope mast.” On 3 October 2008, the U.S. Navy confirmed what the Abele brothers had come to believe: GRUNION had been found. She had imploded about one thousand feet beneath the surface, then hit the bottom hard enough to shear off fifty feet of the bow. The remains of the boat slid down the side of an extinct underwater volcano, finally coming to rest on one of the mountain’s outcroppings. Today, the sub and her crew of sixty, recipients of a battle star for their brief wartime service, lie undisturbed in 3,300 feet of frigid Bering Sea water off the coast of the Aleutians.