On Eternal Patrol

WWII Submarines

On May 19, 2005 – 60 years after the submarine disappeared – Macleod and fellow diver Stewart Oehl sent down a weighted line when their bottom sounder detected an anomaly rising some 15 meters from the seabed.

“On this particular occasion, our shot was perfect,” Macleod recalls. “As I got down to about 200 feet, the bow of the submarine was right in front of me. It was unmistakable. Then I moved aftward and found the 5-inch gun and the conning tower. So it’s obviously a submarine, and too close to be anything other than the Lagarto. The odds of an unknown mystery U.S. submarine right on top of where the Lagarto was reportedly last seen are millions to one. So we were pretty sure.”

Lagarto’s Last Days. Named for the lagarto, or lizard fish, Lagarto was a Balao-class submarine built and launched in Manitowoc, Wis., in 1944. The skipper, Cmdr. Frank Latta, was a veteran of nine war patrols and received the Navy Cross.

During its second war patrol, the submarine was ordered to the Gulf of Siam, where on May 2, 1945, Lagarto received a report from USS Baya (SS 318) alerting it to the presence of a nearby Japanese convoy. The two planned a joint attack, but enemy escorts detected Baya and drove it off with gunfire. The submarines rendezvoused the next day and planned another attack: Lagarto would dive on the convoy’s track to make contact at 1400, while Baya was 10 to 15 miles farther along. But Lagarto failed to respond to contact reports, and Baya went it alone, only to be driven off a second time. No further contact was made with Lagarto, and the submarine was announced as “overdue from patrol and presumed lost” Aug. 10, 1945.

After the war, Japanese records revealed that the minelayer Hatsutaka, believed to be one of the two radar-equipped escorts of the enemy convoy, recorded a depth-charge attack on a U.S. submarine. Not by accident, Hatsutaka was sunk 12 days later by USS Hawkbill (SS 366), whose commander was a friend of Latta’s and requested permission to divert from his patrol for a revenge strike when Lagarto was reported overdue.

The submarine and its crew weren’t forgotten, especially in Lagarto’s birthplace of Manitowoc.

In 1955, members of U.S. Submarine Veterans of World War II assigned each of the 52 submarines lost during the war to a different state, for the purpose of establishing memorials, with California and New York each taking two. Fittingly, Wisconsin adopted Lagarto.

Formal recognition of the wreck took time, but in 2006 – pressured by Lagarto families and SUBVETS – the Navy sent USS Salvor and a team of divers to confirm that Macleod’s find was, in fact, the submarine that disappeared in May 1945. Twin 5-inch gun mounts and “Manitowoc” labeled on the propellers left no doubt.

No Ordinary Wreck. Macleod has visited Lagarto several times since the discovery, and speaking to World War II submarine veterans at a convention in Green Bay in September, he says there’s now a clear picture of what sank it. Initially, he thought damage to the port bow had only dented the submarine’s pressure hull, but reaching underneath the superstructure, Macleod found a large rupture, likely caused by a depth charge. Lagarto flooded, quickly.

Also, a starboard torpedo door is open, and the tube is empty, suggesting Lagarto fired a torpedo before sinking. Macleod and other experts believe the submarine went down fighting.

Because the bodies of Lagarto’s crew lie entombed in sealed compartments, the wreck is considered a war grave, and diving activities are subject to Navy permission. Penetration and artifact recovery are prohibited.

Fortunately, Lagarto’s location makes frequent diving unlikely, Macleod says. “She’s 240 feet deep, and she’s 150 miles away from our nearest port. She’s not going to be a tourist attraction. Really, it’s going to be people interested in precisely what happened to Lagarto and helping us do what I call ‘gardening’ – taking off the ugly nylon nets that drift past and get caught now and again. We do that once or twice a year. I think she’s very safe sitting there.

“Also, we keep the coordinates extremely close to our chest. It’s only us and the U.S. Navy that know.”

As a special guest at the SUBVETS reunion, Macleod met with relatives of Lagarto’s crew, who thanked the diver for helping answer questions that have haunted them for decades.

“One lady said to me that she was worried her husband had been taken prisoner and rotted away in a prison camp somewhere,” he says. “Another thought maybe her husband escaped, met a young Siamese girl and lived on an island the rest of his life. It’s important for them to get things squared away.”

Other Discoveries. Since Lagarto, four other World War II U.S. submarines have been found: Flier (SS 250), Wahoo (SS 238), Perch (SS 176) and Grunion (SS 216).

On Feb. 1, the Navy confirmed that a diving team with YAP Films, a documentary production company, discovered Flier in the Balabac Strait area of the Philippines. Through video footage, Commander Submarine Forces Pacific Fleet (COMSUBPAC) and the Naval Heritage and History Command identified the Gato-class submarine, which struck a mine Aug. 13, 1944, and sank. Fourteen of Flier’s 86-man crew escaped, and eight made it to shore. The last surviving crewman, Ens. Al Jacobson, died in 2008. His family assisted in the search for the submarine, and Jacobson’s notes helped pinpoint the wreckage.

In 2006, Russian divers found Wahoo at a depth of 185 feet in the La Perouse Strait, between the islands of Sakhalin, Russia, and Hokkaido, Japan. One of the most famous submarines in World War II, Wahoo sank 19 Japanese ships before being attacked and sunk Oct. 11, 1943, with 79 men aboard.

A few months after Wahoo’s discovery, an international team of divers hoping to photograph the sunken British cruiser Exeter accidentally discovered Perch, sunk March 3, 1942, in the Java Sea. Two enemy destroyers severely damaged the Porpoise-class submarine in a depth-charge attack. Two days later, on the surface to attempt repairs and unable to dive, Perch was fired upon by two Japanese cruisers and three destroyers. The skipper ordered the boat scuttled, and the crew – 54 enlisted men and five officers – was captured. Six died of malnutrition in Japanese prison camps; the rest returned to the United States after the war.

The fate of Grunion and its 70-man crew was perhaps the greatest mystery. At the SUBVETS reunion in Green Bay, John Fakan, keynote speaker and president of the USS Cod Submarine Memorial in Cleveland, recounted the search for the sunken vessel, found in the Bering Sea in 2007. On its first war patrol, Grunion was north of Kiska, Alaska, on July 30, 1942, when it reported sinking three Japanese destroyers and encountering heavy antisubmarine activity. The Gato-class submarine was ordered back to Dutch Harbor but was not heard from again. It remained on the books for 65 years as missing, cause unknown.

For decades, John, Bruce and Brad Abele sought clues to what happened to Grunion, which was commanded by their father, Lt. Cmdr. Mannert “Jim” Abele. In 2002, a Japanese naval historian named Yutaka Iwasaki provided them with an English translation of a Japanese military officer’s report about his merchant ship, the Kano Maru, being torpedoed by a U.S. submarine near Kiska. The crew returned fire with two machine guns and a deck cannon, and later claimed that a shell had hit the sub’s conning tower and sunk it.

After researching probable locations for Grunion, the Abele brothers hired a Seattle ocean-surveying firm and chartered a crabbing boat with experience sailing the region’s volatile waters. In August 2006, two weeks of sonar scans finally revealed an oblong shape with features that resembled a conning tower and periscope mast.

The Abeles contacted Fakan, whose extensive knowledge of Cod – a submarine with blueprints virtually identical to Grunion’s – convinced them there was a good likelihood they had located their father’s resting place.

“They went back a year later with a remotely operated vehicle using a high-definition video camera, and there’s no question it’s a submarine,” Fakan says.

On Oct. 3, 2008, after examining three hours of underwater video and 700 digital photos, the Navy confirmed that Grunion had been found. Extremely cold water and a lack of oxygen have preserved much of the submarine, revealing an open aft-battery hatch and separated bow.

The Abeles posted an analysis of the wreckage online, and input from experts and others in the submarine community has generated a handful of plausible theories as to what sank Grunion. The most recent is that a circular dud torpedo hit the periscope shears, not a shell from Kano Maru, and that a rear dive plane jammed in the dive position, combined with a disruption, made it impossible for the submarine to blow the forward ballast tanks in time to stop its descent.

What is absolutely certain is that Grunion went below crush depth and imploded, skidding down an underwater mountain starting at 2,000 feet and coming to rest at about 3,200 feet.

“Seventy families knew nothing about what happened,” Fakan said. “Three women called ‘sub ladies’ managed to make contact with every one of them, and in October 2008, we conducted a memorial gathering on Grunion’s sister ship, the Cod, in Cleveland.” Ohio is the state charged with remembering Grunion and its crew.

As for the next World War II submarine to be found – 47 others remain, as submariners say, “on eternal patrol” – it’s anybody’s guess. But thanks to divers like Macleod and the persistence of families who want closure, it’s a more educated guess than ever.

Matt Grills is managing editor of The American Legion Magazine.