boston.com your connection to The Boston Globe

History finds resting place

For family of crew on submarine lost in WWII, some closure

It's been an emotional week for relatives of the 70 men who died aboard the USS Grunion during World War II.

First, late Wednesday, the son of the submarine's commander spotted what is almost definitely its wreckage, in the Bering Sea, off the coast of Kiska, Alaska.

Then yesterday, the mission to inform the crewmembers' relatives that the ship had been found was completed. After articles appeared in Detroit newspapers yesterday, a woman called in to a local radio station and said the Purple Heart awarded to Byron "Buck" Traviss is displayed in a glass case in her living room.

Traviss's cousin-by-marriage -- Barbara Larish of Dearborn, Mich. -- said she was "flabbergasted," when she heard that the sub had probably been found and that a search was on for relatives of the lost crewmen. Larish was the last of the relatives to be informed.

"I'm glad that I was here and alive and I can do this for him," said Larish, who believes she is Traviss's last living relative. "I'm sure a lot of people want closure. Even though you knew the sub had sunk, you still, I guess somewhere in your heart, you wish."

The search for the Grunion and the families victimized by its sinking has gone on for 65 years, led recently by the sons of Lieutenant Commander Mannert L. "Jim" Abele, of Quincy.

Last year, John Abele, cofounder of Boston Scientific, hired a company to search for the submarine, and crew members sent back grainy, sonar images of what they believed was the Grunion. The shadow matched its length and width and appeared exactly where researchers had predicted.

However, naval historians who viewed those images said they were not clear enough to determine the ship's identity. In fact, some officials thought it looked more like a sunken ship, rather than a submarine, said Jack Green, spokesman for the Naval Historical Center.

"If they found a submarine, and to our knowledge, no Japanese submarines were lost in that area, there would be good chance it would be Grunion," Green said. "It would take further examination to verify that, but all World War II war submarines had propeller guards."

Late Wednesday, the crew of the Aquila spotted wreckage a mile below the surface and sent its robotic camera to take a closer look. "We found a submarine tonight," Abele wrote on a blog that tracks the voyage. "We have photographic documentation showing prop guard of Grunion style."

Abele described the vessel as dramatically imploded and a tangle of pipes. "All three of us pride ourselves on being pretty pragmatic," his brother Bruce Abele said Thursday from a makeshift command center at his home in Newton. "This is a very moving experience, to put it mildly."

Mary Bentz's, uncle, Carmine Anthony Parziale, was also on the sub. When she learned of the Abeles' possible discovery last year, she decided to help locate the families of the other servicemen on board that July day in 1942.

Bentz and a few other women used Purple Heart records from a national archive to locate the last known address of each sailor. Then they contacted as many people from that town as possible through phone calls, e-mails, genealogy websites, and newspaper articles, among other searching methods. The women stood up in local churches and asked for help locating family members. Relatives of the 69th crew member, Moore Julis Ledford of Asheville, N.C., were located earlier this week, also through the local media.

"There's been a lot of tears of joy, relief, gratefulness," said Bentz, 63, of Bethesda, Md. "Nobody has forgotten it."

Some fear the cause of the sinking may never be known because of its poor condition. Sunken ships that descend to the bottom of the sea are sometimes crushed by pressure at such depths, making it difficult to discern between battle wounds and implosion damage, Green said.

It is illegal to remove the vessel from its resting place, Green said, because it is still considered Navy property. The Navy also believes a burial at sea is a proper one, he said. The sailors' families agree.

For Donna Francess of Sturbridge, the probable confirmation that the Grunion lies at the bottom of the Bering Sea was also confirmation that her father, Donald Francis Welch, not only had died, but that he had lived.

Her father, who died before she was born, often seemed more a figment of her imagination than a real person, she said. Her only relics of him were a handful of letters he wrote her mother while deployed, a single photograph, and a similar name. "It makes it more real that's for sure," Francess, 64, said. "For me, there was always this myth surrounding him."

Even her daughter was affected by the Grunion's demise, Francess said. "It's just so painful for all of the families that were alive back then and wondered what happened," Francess' daughter, Laura Tasse, 42, said. "The consensus . . . was that just to know they're all there is all we want."

Pop-up GLOBE GRAPHIC: USS Grunion last voyage

Related articles on Boston.com

SEARCH THE ARCHIVES