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2005 Closure, WW II sub found under the sea – Chicago Tribune

Closure, WW II sub found under the sea

Family finally has place to put flowers

By Kelly Kennedy

Tribune staff reporter

Published August 8, 2005

In the ghostly blue lights of a video camera, sea snakes, squids and schools of blue and yellow fish swirl past five-inch battle guns of a World War II submarine 200 feet beneath the South China Sea.

“With all the fish and the coral covering the Lagarto, it’s almost like someone put flowers on a grave,” said Elizabeth Kenney-Augustine, whose grandfather, Bill Mabin of La Grange, was on the vessel.

For decades, no human knew where to put flowers for the 86 men who disappeared with the USS Lagarto somewhere between Thailand and Australia shortly before World War II ended.

In May, a diving team, following the hints of fishermen telling tales of snagged nets, discovered the Lagarto in the Gulf of Thailand. Experts say this is the missing boat because it is believed to be the only American Balao class submarine sunk in the Gulf of Thailand during the war, and because Japanese records released after the war show Japanese sailors sank a submarine in the area where the Lagarto disappeared.

“We believe the wreck to be the Lagarto,” said Jamie Macleod, who, with the U.S. Navy’s permission, dove down to look at the outside of the vessel.

Macleod and Stewart Oehl of the MV Trident dive boat in Thailand discovered the missing submarine.

Author Clive Cussler has spoken with the men about a documentary on the Lagarto, as well as their discovery. U.S. Rep. Daniel Lipinski (D-Ill.) has called on the U.S. Navy to confirm the submarine’s identity.

After talking with the family, Macleod took Kenney-Augustine and her brother, John Kenney Jr., off the shores of Thailand last week to read letters and poems from family members in the first burial ceremony the missing men have had.

On July 31, a diver tucked a dozen white roses into the conning tower, or attack center, of the USS Lagarto. Minutes later, the flowers had disappeared.

“We thought that was nice,” said Kenney-Augustine, of Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood. “Like they accepted our offering.”

For 60 years, Mabin’s daughter, Nancy Kenney of Lake Leelanau, Mich., wondered if her father had somehow come out of the war alive. She waited for him to be released from a prisoner-of-war camp. Or to appear on a remote island. Or to pop through the front door after a top-secret mission.

She knows the families of the other 85 men on board the submarine must have wondered the same things.

“From the letters between my mother and the other wives, I can see there was great confusion,” Kenney said. “They were hoping their husbands were in prison camp. Imagine that–seeing that as the best-case scenario.”

Kenney was 2 when her father was lost. She said her mother, Margaret Chambers of Glen Arbor, Mich., was pleased to hear her husband’s resting place had been found.

“He was the love of her life,” Kenney said. “She’s been shaken by this.”

The USS Lagarto was one of 28 submarines built in Manitowac, Wis., and the Wisconsin Maritime Museum has adopted the submarine and created a memorial to it. According to the museum, the submarine was tested in Lake Michigan.

It left Subic Bay in the Philippines on April 12, 1945, for the Siam Gulf, now the Gulf of Thailand, for its second trip.

USS Baya officers reported at the time that they were to rendezvous with the Lagarto to discuss plans to attack a Japanese convoy on May 3, 1945. At 1 a.m. May 4, 1945, the Japanese convoy drove off the Baya, but nothing was ever heard again from the Lagarto. It was supposed to dock in Australia at the end of May, but it never arrived.

In June 1945, Mabin’s family received a letter saying he was missing in action. A year later, another letter arrived describing him as “presumed dead.”

“This will give you a real glimpse into World War II,” Kenney said. “This is what I grew up with. That’s the last correspondence any of the families had with the Navy.”

Closure, WW II sub found under the sea

Family finally has place to put flowers

By Kelly Kennedy

Tribune staff reporter

Published August 8, 2005

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After the war ended, the Japanese released records showing the minelayer Hatsutaka sunk a submarine at the same time and same place the Lagarto was believed to be during the war, but there was no confirmation.

Kenney’s children grew up with Mabin’s ghost. Every year on Memorial Day, John Kenney has searched the Internet for some sign of his grandfather.

“This year, I did a Google search, and someone had posted that it had been found,” John Kenney said. “Two divers had found it. It’s considered one of the holy grails of Asian diving because it’s one of the only U.S. subs lost anywhere near the Gulf of Thailand.”

Kenney said he immediately called her mother and asked if she were sitting down. After he told her, she began to cry.

“I went through so many emotions,” Nancy Kenney said. “It’s an odd feeling to grieve for someone 60 years after they’re gone.”

She began to contact the families of the missing men.

Kelan Spalding’s brother R.B. Spalding of Springfield, Mo., was also on the Lagarto.

“My wife heard about it on the news and said, `Do you suppose that could be Bobby’s sub?'” Spalding said. “But I thought it would be in deeper water.”

Then he got the call from Nancy Kenney.

“I was 9 years old when it went down,” he said. “I’m relieved to know exactly why and how and where. I hope they allow the divers to film it.”

But he doesn’t want anyone to go inside the sub.

And no one will. According to the U.S. Navy, all sunken U.S. ships are considered gravesites and are off-limits.

But Macleod said the divers don’t want to go inside the submarine.

“We have no plans to explore the wreck,” Macleod said. “We hope to be able to conduct non-intrusive filming only.”

For the families, seeing the outside of the submarine has provided closure.

“I thought there would be a moment when they scraped the coral off and found letters: USS Lagarto,” Kenney-Augustine said. “But it wasn’t like that. We just sat above as they dove beneath, and I thought, `How wonderful.’ It was similar to going to a cemetery and visiting a loved one who has passed and standing over his grave.”

John Kenney said the submarine is sitting upright as if it sank straight down. There are no numbers or names on the side, and research shows the only place divers could find the name of the ship is inside the captain’s quarters. Instead, they used the five-inch guns–an upgrade from previous subs and a good marker for the Belao class–and the slant of the bow to determine its make.

The teak deck and outer superstructure have deteriorated and been torn away, leaving the pressure hull, the conning tower, and a perfectly preserved light.

On the port side, the middle torpedo bow tube remains open. The torpedo is missing.

“It looks like they went down fighting,” John Kenney said.

Nancy Kenney hopes to find more Lagarto families so she can relate the news. Her e-mail address is n.kenney@worldnet.att.net. She said she finally feels as if her father has been laid to rest.

“I can’t tell you how wonderful the divers have been–so sensitive to the families,” Nancy Kenney said. “They even attached an American flag at the top of the tower. I thought, `God bless them for that.'”

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kkennedy@tribune.com

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