The Search For the Grunion

While collaboration has been the underpinning of John Abele’s professional career, perhaps the most stirring example of intellectual teamwork for Abele came not in a laboratory or boardroom.

While collaboration has been the underpinning of John Abele’s professional career, perhaps the most stirring example of intellectual teamwork for Abele came not in a laboratory or boardroom but in the roiling, frigid waters off Kiska, an island in the Western Aleutian islands 1,500 miles from mainland Alaska. There, in August 2007, Abele stood on the deck of the Aquila, a 165-foot crab boat, which he had hired as the search vessel to fulfill a lifelong quest. The excitement at the prospect of discovery warded off the damp and cold. If this effort paid off, aided greatly by collaboration’s essential ally, serendipity, Abele would finally find out what happened to his father, whom he had last seen 65 years earlier.

In May 1942, a 5-year-old John Abele and his two older brothers bid goodbye to their father, Mannert L. Abele, an Annapolis graduate and commander of the U.S.S. Grunion, a 311-foot submarine that was departing its Groton, Conn., base for a long and dangerous mission in the North Pacific. The mission was secret, so the Abeles had no idea where “Jim” Abele, as he was called, was heading. They would never see him again.

Four months passed and a telegram arrived from the Navy stating that the senior Abele was missing, along with the Grunion’s 69-man crew. The Grunion’s fate remained unknown, a mystery that settled into Abele’s psyche like a wound that would never heal. As decades passed, the Navy’s official designation did not change: “Overdue, presumed lost.”

But Abele and his brothers Brad and Bruce were not the types to give up. As cofounder of Boston Scientific, Abele was a billionaire with the resources to initiate a search. But even his riches wouldn’t have been adequate to solve the mystery of the Grunion if not for the advent of the Internet, the power of crowd-sourcing and several serendipitous events.

In 1998, for example, an Air Force officer and World War II history buff named Richard Lane found a wiring diagram for the deck winch of a Japanese freighter in a Denver antique shop. He bought the diagram for a dollar and promptly forgot about it. But a few years later, he found the diagram in a drawer, and this time, he scanned it and posted it on a Web site devoted to World War II naval history. Soon after, a Japanese military historian named Yutaka Iwasaki noticed the diagram and posted a response. The ship, he said, was the Kano Maru, a supply vessel stationed in the Aleutian islands, and according to Iwasaki’s research, the Kano Maru’s captain wrote an article in 1963 that mentioned the sinking of an American submarine in the Aleutians.

A family acquaintance, also a World War II history buff, tipped off Bruce Abele about the Web site and its intriguing data. The Abeles, believing this was the first tangible link to the Grunion, began an Internet search and found an e-mail address for Iwasaki, contacted him and received a translation of the Kano Maru captain’s article.

According to a 2009 article in the Amherst College alumni magazine, the Kano Maru’s captain “described a dramatic battle off the island of Kiska, one of two Alaskan islands occupied by the Japanese during the war. At 5:47 a.m. on July 31, 1942, the Kano Maru was torpedoed by the Grunion. The hit disabled the Kano Maru’s engine; as the freighter floated in the water, a sitting duck, the Grunion fired four more torpedoes—two that missed and two that hit but failed to detonate. The sub then surfaced, whereupon, as Iwasaki’s translation read, ‘Kano Maru’s forecastle gun fired; fourth shot hit the conning tower of the sub. It is thought the last of Grunion.’ ”

Believing they had solved the mystery of the Grunion’s fate, the Abeles wanted more. They wanted to locate the Grunion’s final resting place. Finding a sunken submarine at the bottom of the ocean, however, was going to be a daunting task. By chance, John Abele met oceanographer Robert Ballard at a conference, and Ballard, the technical genius who discovered the wreck of the Titanic, connected Abele to a company in Seattle that did side-scan sonar with a camera that was towed across the ocean floor. The Abeles hired an Alaska fishing boat, the Aquila, knowing that its captain, Kale Garcia, was familiar with the Western Aleutian waters.

In the meantime, relying on crowd-sourcing, Abele set up a Web site devoted to the project, blogged about the progress and posted a mailing list that grew exponentially as time went on. Iwasaki continued to help the Abeles from Japan and collected information from families of the crewmen of the Kano Maru.

“This project represents a model for collaboration in today’s world,” Abele told the Amherst alumni magazine. “Aim a diverse set of minds at solving a problem, and it’s amazing what you can do.”

In 2006, Iwasaki had a breakthrough in Japan. He found the Kano Maru’s logbook, which contained coordinates of its battle with the Grunion. Without that, a search would be like trying to find a sunken needle in a vast nautical haystack. But now the search area was narrowed to about 200 square miles.

In August 2007, Abele boarded the Aquila for what he desperately hoped would be the culmination of his search. It was still a long shot. As the Amherst magazine reported: At 7 p.m., the Aquila set out to search the deep waters off Kiska. Weather reports indicated a massive low-pressure system headed their way, so speed was essential. Arriving at the target area at 9 p.m., the crew lowered the ROV and turned on the cameras. Almost immediately they saw a strange object. ‘It looked like kelp,’ Abele says. ‘But then we got closer.’ It was the bow of a submarine—right away, on their first try. As the ROV moved around the stern, one image eerily duplicated a photo of the Grunion under construction at the Electric Boat shipyard in Connecticut. ‘There she is,’ John said quietly.

Today, Abele is still amazed at the outcome of the search. Having closure about his father was a priceless gift—well worth the $1 million he spent on the effort. But it also triggered a clear epiphany about the art and power of collaboration.

“I remember one evening in the bridge of the Aquila,” he said. “We were having a few beers with the crew and I blurted out my thanks that they had chosen us as much as we had chosen them. I’ve always had the view that the culture of an organization is everything. Our group definitely had differences of opinion, but the culture of the mission dominated. I wasn’t the leader so much as I was a curator, focused on harnessing the collective intelligence of the group.”

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