The search for America’s lost WWII subs

Created date

September 27th, 2019
A black and white photo of a submarine, taken in 1944.

The USS Albacore (SS-218), which was lost by mine in the Pacific, November 1944. 

Of all the branches of combat military service during World War II, submariners faced some of the highest attrition rates. Typically, when something went terribly wrong (whether mechanical or enemy related), all hands were lost with the boat.

Often, these vessels remained missing, buried deep beneath the ocean’s surface. But with the advent of sophisticated manned and remotely operated submersibles, as well as high-definition telepresence technology, these lost relics of the Second World War can now be located along with the remains of the men who died in them.

One organization has devoted itself solely to this task: The Lost 52 Project. 

Founded in 2010 by filmmaker, oceanic explorer, and researcher Tim Taylor, the organization’s name pays homage to all of the missing U.S. submarines sunk throughout war.

Operating these boats was not for the faint of heart. It was dangerous business.

The submarine force was known as “the silent service,” as their deeds were top secret. It comprised just 1.6% of the Navy’s fleet, and yet it managed to sink more than half of the 10 million tons of warships and merchant vessels in Japan’s maritime arsenal. 

Still, they paid a heavy price to do it; in the process, the United States lost 52 submarines and subsequently 375 officers and 3,131 enlisted men. Of these 52 boats, historians believe that two were lost to friendly fire, six to accidental circumstances, and three to defective torpedoes; the Japanese can lay claim to the remainder.

Yet, Taylor is quick to emphasize that this endeavor isn’t merely about searching for downed boats. On the contrary, these vessels are the tombs of the brave men who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country.

Many of them still have living relatives who, until now, have been denied closure, forced to cede their loved ones’ remains to the waters of the Pacific. Knowing precisely where their bones lie would be a welcome consolation if it can end 75 years of uncertainty.

“All of our discoveries are emotional and bittersweet,” says Taylor. “To date, we’ve discovered five submarines, which, collectively, are the graves of 300 lost World War II Sailors.”

The question, however, is why did it take over three quarters of a century to begin locating these boats? The answer is a blend of nature and technology.

Nature and technology

Take, for instance, the Project’s latest discovery, the submarine USS Grunion (SS-216). A Gato-class vessel, she and her crew of 70 sailors embarked on their first war patrol in June 1942, near Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.

During this cruise, the Grunion sank two Japanese patrol boats before receiving orders to return to base in Dutch Harbor on Amaknak Island on July 30. According to Naval records, the crew, on their way back, radioed base to report heavy anti-submarine activity.

They were never heard from again, and within months, Navy brass suspended rescue efforts and listed the Grunion as lost with all hands. They were right.

While attacking a Japanese ship, one of the boat’s radio-guided torpedoes malfunctioned, circling back to the sub and blowing it apart. The crew didn’t have a chance.

For decades, the wreck’s location remained the stuff of conjecture largely based on the sailors’ final radio transmission in which they doubtlessly reported their position. Then, in the 1980s, technology entered the picture and changed things forever.

Thanks to heavy-hulled manned submersibles, along with remote-control vehicles and high-definition cameras, researchers were no longer hampered by the Pacific’s extreme depths. Compared to years ago, our capacity for oceanic exploration is virtually boundless.

A family's personal quest

And in 2007, the three sons of the Grunion’s captain, Mannert Abele, launched an expedition to find the long-lost submarine, their father’s final resting place. In August of that year, they succeeded, discovering the vessel near the island of Kiska, part of the Aleutian chain. 

However, the boat’s bow was missing, a potentially significant clue as to how the Grunion met her demise. Learning of their plight, Taylor brought the Lost 52 Project in to help the Abele brothers solve the mystery of the whole boat’s whereabouts.

They had to find the bow.

In 2018, Taylor and his team hit pay dirt, discovering the missing section a short distance from the main wreck in 2,700 feet of water. While no one can know for sure, the damage does appear to be consistent with a torpedo strike, and ironically, the Grunion’s own.

But Taylor’s work is hardly finished, and he has no intention of stopping.

“We’re well underway with our 2019 expeditions,” he says, adding, “and we’ll keep on going until we find all of the missing vessels.”

In the meantime, the families of 70 good men can take solace in knowing where their loved one’s rest.