BOOK REVIEW: ‘Fatal Dive’ Recounts How the U.S.S. Grunion Disappeared in the Fog of World War II — And How It Was Found

  • Reviewed by David M. Kinchen 
BOOK REVIEW: 'Fatal Dive' Recounts How the U.S.S. Grunion Disappeared in the Fog of World War II -- And How It Was Found

What do you do when Robert Ballard — who headed the team that found the R.M.S.Titanic — turns down your attempt to find a World War II U.S. submarine? If you’re the sons of Commander Mannert L. “Jim” Abele of the U.S.S. Grunion, you go ahead, against all odds in some of the heaviest seas in the world and find the boat and solve the mystery of its disappearance off the Aleutian Islands of Alaska on July 31, 1942.


Balllard, a renowned oceanographer and explorer, was not alone: virtually all the experts agreed with him that the waters of the Bering Sea were too rough to use either sonar or with the aid of submersibles like those that were used in the search for the Titanic.


Timed to mark the 70th anniversary of the mystery of the Grunion, Peter F. Stevens’s “Fatal Dive: Solving the World War II Mystery of the U.S.S Grunion” (Regnery History, 270 pages, bibliography, biographical appendix, index, $24.95) is the gripping account of the true story of the submarine’s fate and the cover-up by the U.S. Navy of its disappearance. It’s a truly inspiring book recounting the efforts of Abele’s three sons to locate the Grunion and bring closure to the death of their dad, along with the other men who died. For 65 years all that the U.S. Navy would tell Catherine “Kay” Abele, who died in 1975, and her sons Brad, Bruce and John was that Jim Abele (pronounced EY-bool-ee) and his crewmen were “missing and presumed dead.”


The 2006 discovery of the Grunion can be attributed to a number of fortuitous circumstances: The fortune amassed by John Abele from his co-founding of Boston Scientific Corp. — which developed medical devices like stents and balloon catheters — and which financed the search; the discovery of a Japanese document in a Denver antique shop; the cooperation of the Japanese Navy; the determination of an exploring protegé of Bob Ballard, and the seamanship skills of Kale Garcia, the skipper of a 165-foot commercial fishing boat called the Aquila that carried the equipment for the search.


Peter F. Stevens

Peter F. Stevens


Stevens describes the story of the search for and the miraculous discovery of the U.S.S. Grunion — as well as the U.S. Navy’s coverup of the submarine’s disappearance. After the against-all-odds discovery of theGrunion one question remained: what sank the boat? (Submariners — pronounced “submareeners” — call their vessels “boats” while the surface Navy uses the term “ships”. One of the major producers of submarines is the Electric Boat Co. of Groton, CT, founded in 1899 and now part of General Dynamics. Electric Boat Co. built the Grunion, launched Dec.22, 1941).


In a telephone conversation from his home in Boston, Stevens told me there is no doubt that the Mark 14 torpedo system used in the Grunion was responsible for the loss of the Grunion. He said the system was the cause of the sinking of other submarines, and was replaced by the Mark 18 torpedo system — even while the Navy continued to deny that the MK 14 one was flawed. In “Fatal Dive,” Stevens names two submarine skippers who questioned the MK 14 system during World War II, to the consternation of their superiors. Whistle-blowers have never been welcomed in military bureaucracies! Before it was replaced by the MK 18, improvements were made in the MK 14 system, but it still was an iffy system. Stevens also told me there never was an official search for the Grunion.


In a page-turner of a book, Stevens finally lays to rest one of World War II’s greatest mysteries. Stevens includes brief biographies –accompanied by photographs — of Jim Abele and the Grunion’s crewmen and pays tribute to the efforts of their relatives who kept their memories alive. If you’re interested in military and nautical history — or if you’re looking for an inspiring book, I can’t recommend “Fatal Dive” too highly.

About the Author 

Peter F. Stevens, news and features editor of The Boston Irish Reporter, is a veteran journalist with a specialty in historical writing. His work is syndicated by The New York Times and has been published in dozens of magazines and newspapers. Stevens is also a two-time winner of the International Regional Magazine Association’s Gold Medal for Feature Writing and the award-winning author of “The Voyage of the Catalpa: A Perilous Journey” and “Six Irish Rebels’ Escape to Freedom”. He lives in Boston.


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