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Friday, July 27, 2012

Fatal Dive: Solving the World War II Mystery of the USS Grunion by Peter F. Stevens


Three stories in one: A biography, a mystery and an adventure

Published in 2012 by Regnery History

The USS Grunion was  a top of the line submarine for the U.S. Navy in 1942. Literally, the fastest submarine in the fleet and outfitted with the latest in torpedo technology (magnet activated designed to go off near ships) and led by the highly-respected Lieutenant Commander Jim Abele, the USS Grunion was sent to the Aleutian Islands in Alaska to harass Japanese supply ships (for those who did not know, Japanese forces held parts of the Aleutian Islands for a little more than in a year from 1942 to 1943).

The USS Grunion performed well, sinking two Japanese submarines and damaging a freighter despite problems with the torpedoes. What the crew of the USS Grunion did not know was that these advanced torpedoes did not work like they were supposed to. They did not track well towards their targets (although the magnetic trigger, called a magnetic pistol, was supposed to go off if it got near a ship, they often did not) and some of the torpedoes simply bounced off their targets when they hit (the freighter it attacked was damaged by two torpedoes that simply slammed into the hull with no explosions). In my mind, the fact that the Grunion did so well with an inferior torpedo is a testament to the ship and its crew.

But, the worst feature of these torpedoes was that some of them would miss their targets and go around in a broad circle back to the submarine that fired them, like a boomerang. It is one thing to use weapons that may misfire or miss. It is another to use weapons that have a tendency to miss and then circle back on the submarine that fired them!

The USS Grunion in March of 1942, before she was commissioned
No one is quite sure how the Grunion was sunk, but it went down while in a fight with a Japanese freighter. The U.S. Navy has been silent about possible causes, but it seems likely that a torpedo circled back on the Grunion and collided with it, causing the Lt. Cmdr. Abele to assume that the Grunion was under fire from a Japanese plane and order it to dive. The dive plane (or hydroplane) controls the angle of the dive and it may have been damaged from the torpedo or other combat and got stuck so that the submarine was forced to keep going down until it finally was crushed by the intense pressure of the ocean itself.

The families of the 70 crew members of the Grunion were never told anything about faulty torpedoes or even where their loved ones were serving when they disappeared. Instead, a few family members used the connections and resources they had and shared what they knew with each other. They pieced together what they had and with a few very lucky breaks and help from Japanese historians were able to get a very good idea where the Grunion sank.

Fatal Dive is really three stories. It is the story of the Jim Abele and the USS Grunion , the story of the detective work that went into finding the possible location of the USS Grunion and the story of how it was finally find (no easy task in the very rough waters around the Aleutians). Stevens keeps a feeling of tension throughout his description of the search for the missing submarine despite the fact that the reader knows the mystery was solved when he reads the title and can see the pictures in the middle insert section, which is no mean feat.

Stevens includes a mini-biography and a picture of almost every member of the crew and does his best to make Fatal Dive a testament to the entire crew and their families, not just the story of the Abele family.

I rate this book 4 out of 5 stars.

This book can be found on Amazon.com here: Fatal Dive: Solving the World War II Mystery of the USS Grunion by Peter F. Stevens.

Reviewed on July 27, 2012.

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