The discovery of a submariner's watery tomb revives memories of an entire family all but forgotten — except by one descendant.
The Western Union telegram from John Wilson arrived in Long Island on Sept. 30, 1942. From that widowed father to his eldest son, it was nine words long: literal, bare and devastating.
WIRE FROM NAVY THIS MORNING. JACK IS GONE. DAD.
“I always found that message to be poignant,” said grandson John Wilson III.
John Wilson Sr. was living in Canandaigua at the time. Jack was the second of his three sons: full name John Wilson Jr., brother to Richard and Robert. All three sons, and father, were in the military — something of a family tradition since an ancestral Wilson picked up a musket and joined the state militia more than a century earlier.
Along with 70 other men aboard the USS Grunion submarine, John Wilson Jr. went missing off the Aleutian Islands in 1942. Neither the boat nor its crew were found. A search was never conducted. U.S. Navy reports to the families of the lost could only say that nothing could be said. Regrets were expressed. Delays should be expected.
“The family spoke emotionally of my uncle Jack and how they missed him,” said John Wilson III. “They wondered at how he would have been as an adult ... thought that he would have been a good family man.”
The Grunion was one of the first U.S. submarines launched during World War II. Its last report mentioned an encounter with armed Japanese freighters. Then nothing. And nothing was known for 65 years.
Then last August, in the frigid waters of the Bering Sea, the Grunion was found. Images of its hull were broadcast in high-definition video on the Internet.
News of the search and discovery made national headlines. A black-and-white photograph of hometown hero John Wilson Jr., his hair blowing out from under his mariner’s cap, was published in the pages of USA Today.
“I became really excited then,” said John Wilson III. “I thought how proud his father and brothers would have been. They would have just been bursting with joy at all this.”
None of them were alive. John Wilson died in 1964. Richard died in 1965, Robert in 1985. Their mother had been dead since 1930.
So the grandson became the compiler of their history. He followed their lives and losses through memories and in documents — some so brittle a harsh breath could disperse their words. Tragedy ran through the story, almost as a theme.
John Wilson III recounts how during the Great Depression, poverty forced his grandfather to send his boys to a boarding home in Rochester, and how he struggled to secure them room and board on farms in exchange for work while all three attended Canandaigua Academy.
He tells of his grandfather’s devotion to the military, how he re-enlisted at the age of 35, pioneered the American Legion post in Canandaigua, then tried to become active again — unsuccessfully — once he was well into his 60s.
A few years ago, John Wilson III returned to Canandaigua, where he used to visit his grandfather, go swimming in the lake and shoot ski ball at Roseland. He wrote an essay about his visit, about his family.
“I have only a middle-aged man’s memories of my childhood,” he wrote. “I cannot guarantee their accuracy. I can ensure sincerity.”
‘A stream of improbables’
Perhaps no one would have ever seen the USS Grunion again, if it weren’t for a colonel with a penchant for military antiques, explains Mary Bentz. Bentz is the niece of Carmine Parziale, one of the Grunion’s lost. She lives in Maryland.
It was about five years ago, she recalls. U.S. Air Force Lt. Col. Richard Lane purchased a wiring diagram of a Japanese boat dating back to the 1930s. It cost him a dollar.
Intrigued, but not too knowledgeable on the topic, Lane posted a note about his find on a Web site dedicated to Japanese naval history, asking if anyone could identify the diagram.
He was contacted by Yutaka Iwasaki, a historian who said he could most certainly identify the diagram: It was the schematic for the Kano Maru, he said, a Japanese freighter that sunk the USS Grunion in World War II. Further, he could tell him where.
It was a revelation, and Lane knew it. Immediately, he posted the information on an American submarine site.
“It was there for two or three years before we knew anything about it,” said Bruce Abele, one of the three sons of Mannert Abele, commander of the Grunion. “Then I spotted it.”
This was more than 60 years after the sub went down, notes Bentz.
“The parents of these guys are dead,” she said. “We have three widows alive, but then we’re down to children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Even the friends would be well into their 90s.”
So the searches began: Bentz, for at least one living relative of every crewman that perished aboard the Grunion; Abele, for the Grunion itself.
“It was a stream of improbables that allowed us to do this,” said Abele.
He had the devotion to do the research and track the sub, but it was his brother John, the founder of bio-tech giant Boston Scientific, who had the money to make it happen. First things first, they needed Iwasaki.
Bruce Abele will never forget when he first heard from the Japanese historian, in an e-mail. “He wrote to us, and he said: ‘I pray for the repose of your father’s soul.’”
Iwasaki was on board. In fact, he flew to Massachusetts and stayed on to aid with the search. Next, the brothers hired a company to perform a sonar reconnaissance. Another success. A scan picked up fuzzy images of what could very well be a submarine at the bottom of the Bering Sea. That was all the proof they needed.
John Abele waited until the frigid waters were cool enough to head underwater. He led the search armed with high-definition cameras strapped to an underwater rover.
Bruce Abele was back home in Massachusetts, following the progress.
“They e-mailed us stuff everyday,” he said. “We would come in at two o’clock in the morning, and we’d stay up to watch what happened.”
Then, as a Boston Globe journalist interviewed him at home, a report came in from his brother John. The Grunion was found.
Discovered at the bottom of the ocean, the mangled sub was barely discernible from the sea life that consumed it. Its plaque ID letters had been chewed off by a half-century of salty decay. Its steel shell had grown a second skin of seaweed and shells. Crabs the size of men skittered along its barnacled hull, itself more like moss than metal.
But it was the boat. There was no doubt.
“Holy gosh was that dramatic,” said Bruce Abele. “It was overwhelming.”
That same day, Bentz located a relative of the last of the Grunion crew.
Please visit www.ussgrunion.com for more up-to-date information about the discovery of the USS Grunion, its crew and a future memorial to be held in its honor.
Contact Philip Anselmo at (585) 394-0770, Ext. 322, or at email@example.com.