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Lt. Cmdr. Jim Abele commanded the USS Grunion, a submarine sunk during World War II that was finally found by his sons on the slope of an underwater volcano near Kiska, at the western tip of Alaska’s Aleutian Islands.
TODAY contributor
updated 1/1/2009 5:00:04 PM ET 2009-01-01T22:00:04

Longing can chart a better course than MapQuest. After more than 60 years, the Abele brothers have finally found their father.

Lt. Cmdr. Jim Abele commanded the USS Grunion, a submarine that disappeared off the coast of Alaska during World War II. Seven years ago his sons made a deal with their hearts, not their heads, and went looking for him.

It cost them a bundle. "If this were an official Navy project, I would guess that the taxpayers would be paying about 10 times what we're paying," John Abele chuckled.          

"How much are you paying?" I asked. 

"That's a secret," he laughed.

Searching by sonar
A secret like the mystery of what happened to their father's sub. Military search planes never found where the Grunion sank, but the brothers from suburban Boston kept looking. In 2006 they began crisscrossing the Bering Sea, probing its depths with sonar.

In 2007, they found the sub a mile down, on the slope of an underwater volcano 12 miles north of Kiska, at the western tip of Alaska's Aleutian Islands. Last fall the Navy confirmed that the Abele brothers had done what it could not — solve one of World War II's biggest mysteries. 

The brothers' big break came when a Japanese historian found an account of the Grunion's last battle. It said there was a confrontation between a cargo ship and a sub.

The Japanese freighter's crew spotted two torpedoes bubbling toward them. The first one missed. The second one hit.

The torpedo exploded and stopped the freighter's engine. Terrified, the Japanese seamen turned a deck gun on the sub and fired it 84 times. As the Grunion began to surface, "There was a dull ‘thud’ noise and a little spout — presumably oil, we don't know," said John Abele.

Their dad's sub slid into history's shadows. Seventy men were never heard from again. 

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No goodbyes
The last time the brothers saw their father was at a Sunday dinner at his sub base in Groton, Conn. Wartime secrecy prevented him from telling them he was leaving. He slipped away without a kiss or a wave. 

With a tear in his eye, Bruce Abele told me: "We knew that he was gone when a neighbor called and said she had seen the sub leave. We didn't have a chance to say goodbye."

Four months later, their mom got a telegram saying that Lieutenant Commander Abele was missing. Then came a letter with a Navy Cross, citing him for valor. It came with a check.

"She sent it back to the government," said John.

And put her sons to work while she taught violin.

The brothers showed me stacks of letters their mother had received. She wrote to every family that had lost someone on the Grunion.

Their mom never remarried. The boys never forgot. Jim never left their minds.  

"How did you finally grieve for your father?" I asked Bruce.

"I used to shoot baskets in the backyard," he said. "This is hard to say, but if I could make five at a time, I'd say, 'Jim's coming back!' " He choked up. "But he never did."

So his sons went to Jim Abele instead. Some love cannot be measured. It is the sum of a lifetime of searching.

Want to learn more about the Abele brothers’ search for the USS Grunion? Click here.

Keep those ideas coming. Know someone who would make a great American Story with Bob Dotson? Drop a note in my mailbox .

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Video: A final farewell


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