Editor’s Note: Mr. Abele is the son of Lieutenant Commander Mannert L . Abele, USN, Commanding Officer of GRUNION at the time of its loss.
In March of 2002 we found a listing on the web from Commander Submarine Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet in which there was a new entry for the loss of GRUNION. It cited a message from a Japanese man, Yutaka Iwasaki who had translated some Japanese writings in which was described this incident. The article he had translated had appeared in a special July 2001 issue of the Japanese trade magazine Maru as a reprint of an article which had first been published (in Japanese) in March 1963 also in a special issue of Maru. The article by Navy ex-Captain Seiichi Aiura who had been the Superintendent on KANO MARU at the time of the attack, was headlined, “We Have Sunk US Submarine” and the title was “Transport KANO MARU Bern Gun Got the Target”.
In the article, Mr. Aiura states, “Now the transport mission is the most important work in the Western Aleutian front. But for our transport ship, this work is so dislikeable because the North Sea has the worst weather in the world; dense fog and heavy weather harass the ships through the year. Also the ships must suffer a submarine threat throughout this ‘Devil Sea’, and in the vicinity of the islands there exists the additional threat from aircraft. Furthermore, once a ship sinks and one is thrown into this North Sea even in summer one cannot survive more than a few minutes.”
Further along in the article he speaks of the encounter with the submarine (almost certainly GRUNION). “The KANO MARU arrived at a point North of Kiska in a heavy fog on the 30th of July 1942. Since it had lost contact with its escort and was lost, it was forced to stop and drift for most of the night. Later she found where she was by an astronomical fix, which put it then at a position east of Kiska some 12 sea miles NW of Segura Island (which in tum Jay some 25 miles east of Kiska Island). The ship started up and changed course so that it was traveling WSW on a course of 255 degrees at 15 knots approximately towards the mountaintop at the North tip of Kiska Island. Meanwhile, GRUN-ION, having been recalled the previous evening (on 30 July), was presumably in the same area as KANO MARU at the time of attack. At 05:47 on the morning of July 31 .. , two torpedoes were spotted coming at the cargo ship from the starboard quarter. The ship tried in vain to turn into the torpedoes but while the first torpedo passed astern, the second exploded aft at the machinery room on the starboard side. At this time, KANO MARU spotted the periscope of a submarine quite close by on the forward starboard side. The cargo ship hadn’t sunk but its main engine, generator and its radio were out of commission. The now terrified Japanese seamen, recognizing their helplessness and probable fate had to put all their faith in the one remaining operable 8cm gun on the forecastle-the one on the stem having been made inoperable by the torpedo hit. This forward-located 8cm gun was immediately put into action, as were the 13mm machine guns mounted on its bridge. The periscope that had been on the forward starboard side gradually moved aft on the starboard side. Then, at 05:57, ten minutes after the first shot, another torpedo came from about 300 meters distance but passed harmlessly below the ship without detonating. The periscope was then observed moving from the starboard stern around the stem to the portside. Ten minutes later at 06:07, three more torpedoes in a salvo came, two of which hit the forecastle and amidships with thuds but both of these torpedoes were duds. One of these duds struck the forward bridge at the #2 cargo hold. After it hit, it apparently lost its head while the rest of its body floated on the water, tail down with about two feet of it protruding above the surface. Then, having already fired six torpedoes at the cargo ship (which was three more than Admiral English, then COMSUBPAC and Lieutenant Commander Abele’s ultimate superior, would have been content with) GRUNION apparently elected to surface behind the cargo ship and finish it off with its deck gun. Shortly thereafter, a submarine was spotted surfacing about 400 meters away and aft of KANO MARU. GRUNION had now reversed its course 180 degrees, turning away from the cargo ship and heading once more aft of the ship where it might be shielded from the 8cm gunfire by the superstructure of KANO MARU. At this point the submarine was bearing 135 degrees on the port quarter.
Suddenly disaster struck for GRUNION! Before the sub had fully surfaced and moments before it had passed safely astern, a direct hit (probably a lucky shot) was scored on the conning tower by the fourth shot from the 8cm gun, after it had resumed firing, and the submarine disappeared from the scene. (This was presumably the 84111 shot overall which had been fired from the 8cm gun.) As the shell hit the washing wave, a column of water was observed and a dull water explosion sound was heard. Also much spouting· oil, a piece of a lifeguard buoy and pieces of wood chips which appeared to be material from the submarine deck were observed. In addition to the 8cm gunfire, numerous 13mm shells from the machine guns were also fired, which while ineffective on the submarine structure, served to mark the location of the periscope for the 8cm gun crew to follow. Word of this action was reported to the Japanese Fifth Fleet and the Chief of the Grand Fleet via the fifth guard troop Commander (Kiska Island) but apparently was lost in transit somewhere for there was no record of the attack in the official Japanese records after the war.
Later, rescue came from Kiska in the form of three seaplanes, a cable laying ship and sub chaser No. 26 (which ironically had been damaged by GRUNION two weeks prior). The damaged cargo ship was towed back to Kiska harbor and tied up at a pier there. On August 8111 the harbor was bombed by U.S. planes. The cargo ship was one of the targets hit and its sinking was claimed by the attacking aircraft. After the war KANO MARU was patched up and recommissioned.
What happened on GRUNION after the Bern shell (about 3.15 inches in diameter) hit the conning tower can only be speculated on. While the hit alone might have been insufficient to sink the boat, i t is possible that the hatch between the conning tower space and the control room below might have been open at the moment to allow sub personnel to ascend to the submarine bridge. If that were so, the explosion could have jammed the hatch so it couldn’t be closed and when the sub instinctively submerged (they may not have known for sure who or what was firing at it). The water would then not only fill the conning tower but the control room below as well. Also it may have been possible that 3 inch ordinance for the deck gun was present inside the conning tower in preparation for its upcoming use. In any event, GRUNION never made it back to Dutch Harbor, which was an easy 1.5 to 2 days run on the surface from where they were hit. Upon learning the details of this account, it is now apparent that the loss of GRUNION can be directly traced in addition to the hit by the 8cm shell to the known malfunctions of the torpedoes of that day. This may have been the first recorded instance of this in WWII.
We first heard of this account in March of 2002. After hearing the initial description of the action, my brother John and I both contacted Mr. Y. Iwasaki who had translated the version which had appeared in the July 2001 issue of Maru magazine and posed some additional questions to him. He kindly translated the complete article and e-mailed it to each of us along with answers to our queries. For the prior 59 plus years we had been of the understanding that the fate of GRUNION was unknown and that her crew therefore was officially missing in action.