The mystery of the USS Grunion was one that many people thought would remain unsolved. For over 80 years, nobody knew what became of the submarine or its crew, and what was once a tragic loss became nothing more than a curious footnote of history.
But for some, the ultimate fate of the Grunion was a far more personal matter, and the passage of time wasn’t enough to stop them from getting the closure they needed. One family’s determination led them on an incredible journey to uncover the truth about the ship’s fate — and inspired them to make one unexpected move once they had answers.
The Fate of the USS Grunion and its crew has left people baffled since the end of World War II. With no news for over eight decades, it seemed unlikely that its remains would ever be found. That all changed with one very determined family.
John E. Abele was the director and co-founder of a medical device company based out of Boston who became interested in learning about the fate of the Grunion. For him, finding the remains of this long-missing vessel was an incredibly personal task.
His father was Commander Mannert Abele, whom friends and family affectionately called “Jim.” In 1942, John was only 5 years old when he and his two brothers were told of their father’s missing vessel. Without a chance to say goodbye, they began working on something to remember him.
The Abele family
Over the years, John and his brothers began putting together what they called “The Jim Book.” What started out as something only meant to be shown to family and friends surprisingly ended up being the very thing that started their quest for answers.
The Abele family
The brothers’ journey began when a relative had shown the book to their boss who happened to be a World War II historian. They passed along a few websites about the Grunion to them where the family discovered an unexpected clue.
Metrounit – Youtube
In 1998, an Air Force lieutenant purchased a diagram of an old Japanese warship, the Kano Maru, for one dollar. Curious about its origins, he posted about it online and found a Japanese Historian named Yutaka Iwasaki where he revealed a startling connection to the Grunion.
Tom Brandt – Flickr
Iwasaki had discovered and translated an article from the 1960s from a Japanese naval officer who served aboard the Kano Maru. In it was a detailed account of a battle the ship had with an unknown enemy submarine, as well as its possible location.
The naval skirmish had taken place near one of the Alaskan islands called Kiska. The brothers now had a good starting point, but had no idea how to go searching for a submarine under water. They got some advice from a famous oceanographer whose discoveries were legendary.
Tom Knowles – The Times
Robert Ballard was experienced in discovering lost ships — after all, he had discovered the wreck of the RMS Titanic. Though he wasn’t able to join the brothers, he gave them a crash course in techniques they could use to find the sunken submarine.
Their adventure officially began in August of 2006 when they boarded the Alaskan crabbing boat Aquila and ferried sonar equipment to search the coordinates that Iwasaki had sent them. Searching over 250 square miles of sea floor, they finally discovered something a week later.
The Abele family
At 3,200 feet deep, sonar scans picked up a strange shape on the ocean floor that looked similar to a submarine, but it was a bit shorter than the Grunion would have been. They sent down a deep sea camera to investigate.
As they approached their mysterious target, they were greeted by the familiar shape of a propeller, and there was no question what they had found: the site of their father’s long missing final resting place! As they explored, they were amazed by the story the wreckage told.
The Abele family
Completely ravaged by years under the sea, the Grunion had a 50-foot chunk of the bow missing, and the hatches had been blown open. Seeing the extensive damage also helped them piece together what exactly had happened to the ill-fated submarine.
The Abele family
“There’s no question about what happened,” said eldest brother Bruce. They discovered that the Grunion had imploded under the enormous deep sea pressure. Even though they had finally uncovered the truth about their father’s missing submarine, their work wasn’t over yet.
The Abele family
Jim had only been one person of a 70-man crew that lost their lives on the Grunion. The Abele brothers now had a new mission: to search for the families of every person who had worked on the submarine. Of course, this was easier said than done.
As they poured over genealogy files, family records, and old letters that have been saved by their mother, the Abele brothers learned more about the men who had been lost at sea. They assembled a team to help track down other families in some unconventional ways.
Hulton Archive / Stringer
They even went on the radio to see if they could find any relatives of the one soldier whose family they hadn’t found — and someone called in to let them know they had his purple heart hanging in their dining room! The healing wasn’t only reserved for the American soldier’s families though.
Today Show, September 21,2008
Before it had been sunk in the war, the Grunion had taken down two Japanese vessels. The brothers found the widow of one of those ship’s commanders and sent her flowers. She was so touched by this act of kindness that she sent them a hand-woven gift in return.
Pool / Pool
It may have taken over 80 years, but the Abele brothers had finally gotten closure about their father’s death. And through their remarkable journey, they were able to bring it to so many other families who also never got the chance to say goodbye.
Their work was admired by the aforementioned Robert Ballard, who by the early-1980s, had put together quite the seafaring resume: he was a retired United States Navy officer and a professor of oceanography at the University of Rhode Island. A certain experience made the Abele’s find possible.
See, in 1982, the former U.S. Naval Officer approached the U.S. Navy to request funding to develop a robotic submersible piece of technology called The Argo. With this tech, he could pursue the mission he’d been dreaming up for a while.
Woods Hole Oceangraphic
And that mission? Find the wreckage of the RMS Titanic — yes, that Titanic! Built as a luxury British passenger liner, the now-infamous cruise ship was branded as an “unsinkable ship” and embarked on its maiden voyage on April 10, 1912.
Joseph H. Bailey
Days later, the ship famously struck an iceberg just before midnight and sank to the bottom of the ocean. Since then, no one had found the wreckage. It lay, surprisingly, untouched and undiscovered.
So Ballard pitched his tech idea, which was heard by the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Submarine Warfare, Ronald Thunman. From his perspective, the invention idea was alluring — the mission to find the Titanic, however, was less so.
But the gears in Thunman’s head did start turning. Ballard’s invention could help him — and the country — answer some political questions that arose during the Cold War.
Wally McNamee / Corbis
More specifically, Thunman’s questions revolved around two other famous missing ships: the USS Thresher and USSScorpion. They, like the Titanic, met highly publicized demises. Theirs, however, was more mysterious.
Thunman wanted Ballard’s team to use his tech to help find those missing wrecks. Ballard just wanted to use his innovative technology to discover the Titanic wreckage! But just as in life, with military missions, we don’t always get what we want…
Thunman gave Ballard and a crew two special missions: investigate the potential environmental damage of the subs’ nuclear reactors (which sat at the bottom of the ocean), and search the sunken subs for any evidence of Soviet interference that may have caused the loss of U.S. Navy property.
Emory Kristof / National Geographic
And so it was that Ballard and his crew embarked on a mission to find not the Titanic, but the disappeared ships instead. Wouldn’t you know it, after a search, they located and studied both the USS Thresher and the USS Scorpion.
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution
Collected data indicated the nuclear reactors were stable where they were and posed no threat to the environment. But what about the Soviets? Had they sunk the two ships?
Emory Kristof / National Geographic
In addition, the theory that the Soviets were responsible for the loss of the USS Scorpion was debunked. As it turns out, the two submarine tragedies were just that — tragedies.
Ballard managed to wrap up Thunman’s mission quickly; in fact, his crew finished 12 days before their projected end date. More exciting, Thunman told Ballard he could search for the Titanic if he had any time remaining…
30 James Street
Ballard had to be quick and work overtime if he was going to successfully locate the Titanic. Taking the knowledge he learned on his secret mission, regarding effects of ocean currents on sinking debris, he set out to find any indication of the ghost ship.
As the days and funds ticked away, Ballard searched for any sign of the wreckage. For a while, even with the Argo, he found nothing. And then, on September 1, 1985, he picked up a piece of a ship…
Sure enough, the broken ship left a Hansel and Gretel trail that lead Ballard right to it. More than 2.3 miles below the surface — and 1,250 miles from its final destination of New York City — laid the Titanic, split into two pieces about a third of a mile away from each other.
Emory Kristof / Nat Geo Image Collection
A media frenzy ensued — and this made U.S Navy officials extremely nervous. They never expected Ballard to find the lost ship. What if their top-secret mission to find the USS Thresher and the USS Scorpion surfaced?
U.S. Department of Defense
Fortunately for them, people were so focused on the legendary Titanic, folks never stopped to ask what was Ballard doing out there? Their mission — until now — stayed safely under wraps.
Thankfully, for the Navy, their secret mission stayed under wraps for decades until the Cold War ended. Other explorer expeditions have been made public, but it makes you wonder what other top secret missions are going on right under our noses!
Sometimes, the mythology surrounding a historical event like the Titanic can overtake the actual facts of the story—and, naturally, our memories of it become confused. It can be easy to forget what really happened, but thanks to people like Ballard and his team, we can be reminded of the truth…
1. The Titanic was equipped to carry 64 lifeboats, but it only carried 20: Most people are probably aware that the Titanic was ill-equipped for emergencies—it was “unsinkable,” after all. Yet there’s no excuse for why it didn’t store enough lifeboats… or why they weren’t filled to capacity when they were needed later.
Soerfm / Wikimedia Commons
2. Chief Baker Charles Joughlin reportedly swam for two hours in freezing waters before he was rescued: Joughlin attributed his survival to the generous amount of whiskey he drank before the Titanic sank.
3. After sideswiping a massive iceberg, it took two hours and 40 minutes for the Titanic to sink beneath the surface: Considering the number of people who lost their lives on that doomed ship, this must have seemed like an agonizingly long time.
4. Thirteen couples were on their honeymoon when the Titanic went under: It’s tragic that what was supposed to be one of the greatest experiences in these couples’ lives turned into such a gruesome nightmare. Hopefully more than a few of them managed to survive together.
5. Fourteen years before the Titanic sank, Morgan Robertson wrote a novella, called Futility, about a large, unsinkable ship—the Titan—striking an iceberg in the Northern Atlantic: Even more eerie was the fact that neither ship had enough lifeboats for the thousands of passengers on board.
6. Musicians played for more than two hours as the ship sank: The fact that the ship’s band continued playing as the doomed liner sank has been well documented, but few realize that, in the effort to boost morale, they were simultaneously performing and awaiting their own deaths.
7. A lifeboat drill was scheduled the day the Titanic sank, but was canceled by Captain Edward John Smith for unknown reasons: This is just one of many examples of how the story of the Titanic was full of fate’s cruel sense of irony. Even without enough lifeboats, there’s no telling how many people would’ve been saved had they been prepared.
8. The 15 bulkheads on the “unsinkable” Titanic were individually watertight: The fatal flaw? Water could spill from one compartment into the next, with the weight of the water pulling the ship under. It’s just another example of how much could’ve been prevented if the Titanic‘s designers hadn’t been so overconfident about the ship’s indestructibility.
9. There was a true love story on the Titanic: Isador Straus, co-owner of Macy’s department store, and his wife Ida were first-class passengers. They were married 41 years before passing away arm-in-arm on the sinking ship.
10. The length of the Titanic was 882 feet and nine inches: That’s approximately two-and-a-half football fields from bow to stern! The Titanic was not only notable for being “unsinkable” but for being absolutely massive. Still, it’d seem tiny compared to today’s cruise ships.
11. First-class amenities included a Parisian cafe, tea gardens, gymnasium, library, reading and writing rooms, squash court, barbershop, kennel, elevators, smoking room, and a heated swimming pool.
12. A new rust-eating bacteria, Halomonas titanicae, will consume what is left of the Titanic within 20 years: Two decades isn’t a very long time from now, is it? In just one generation, there will hardly be anything left of the Titanic—at least, physically speaking.
13. A passenger who lived through the traumatic fire and sinking of a ship in 1871 faced his fears and boarded the Titanic in 1912. He died with the ship: You’d think karma would’ve rewarded this man for finally overcoming his traumatic experiences, but it was not to be.
14. After striking the iceberg, 60 minutes passed before the first lifeboat was finally released: It’s shocking that it took such a long time before somebody finally decided that this was an emergency situation. It just goes to show how everyone was convinced the ship was “unsinkable.”
15. When the Titanic sank, the temperature of the ocean water was only 28 degrees: That’s four degrees below the freezing point! It’s easy to speculate that more people may have managed to survive had the water not been literally below freezing…
16. The remains of the Titanic were lost for 73 years: The shipwreck wasn’t found until an expedition in 1985, when it was located a whopping 12,500 feet below the surface just off the coast of Newfoundland. That’s a pretty long time to find one of the most famous shipwrecks in history!
17. The first newspapers to release the story of the Titanic initially reported that no lives were lost: It took two days before an accurate report was released. It may seem shocking, but it’s important to remember that, before the days of the Internet, information was difficult to verify quickly.
Kesäperuna / Wikimedia Commons
18. The opulent Turkish Bath was designated for first-class passengers only, while more than 700 third-class passengers had to share two bathtubs: The relationship between the rich and the poor was a contentious one, especially in 1912 when the Titanic sank.
19. The richest passenger on board the Titanic was John Jacob Astor IV: Astor’s net worth was around $85 million, or $2 billion today. Astor perished with the ship; he was last seen smoking a cigarette on deck with American journalist and mystery writer Jacques Futrelle. During such disastrous situations, social status doesn’t matter at all.
Materialscientist / Wikimedia Commons
20. More than 1,500 passengers died during the sinking of the Titanic, but only 306 bodies were found: There have been plenty of other tragedies throughout history, many of which have been even deadlier. Yet few can match the story of the Titanic when it comes to the combination of grandeur and cruel irony.