Early WWII tragedy haunts area woman

Posted on Wednesday 7 February 2007


Sunday, February 04, 2007



Donna Francess was driving to work last August when she heard a word on the radio that made her heart jump.

The word was “grunion,” as in the USS Grunion, a submarine last heard from in July 1942.

Deep in the frigid Bering Sea, west of Alaska, a research crew was reported to have found wreckage believed to be the Grunion.

Donald Francis Welch

(Photo and information courtesy of Laura Conley, granddaughter Posted on Eternal Patrol.)

Among the submarine’s 70-man crew was her father, Donald Francis Welch of Springfield, whom she Located by a research team funded by the sons of the Grunion’s commander, who hail from Newton, the discovery of the sub was just the beginning of work to solve a more than 60-year-old mystery from the early days of World War II.

Exactly why the Grunion went down has not been determined, according to relatives of the crew and naval Web sites.

The researchers’ news moved Francess, whose mother was pregnant with her that summer after the Japanese had attacked Pearl Harbor, to dig out her father’s records and try again to piece together the strange puzzle she knows can never be complete.

“I found out that he had a good sense of humor, he loved kids, (and) he loved California,” where he had been stationed, said Francess, 64, recently. “He wrote letters to my mother and said, ‘I love it out here. We’re going to move out here and have kids.’

“Having never known him, he’s a mystery to me. He’s someone, like, if you’re a child, he’s a person you’re thinking is going to come and rescue you. He was the kind of person, people told me, (who) was the light of the room. He was the kind of person you’d like to know.”

A divorced mother of two grown daughters, Francess lives in Sturbridge. She works at Allied Flooring & Paint Co. of Agawam.

She also is a consultant in feng shui (pronounced “fung shwee”). That is the ancient Chinese practice of placement and arrangement of space, colors, and objects such as furniture and paintings to achieve harmony with the environment.

The focus on harmony, reading of eastern philosophies, and painting have helped her move through the years, she said.

Her parents, the former Doris E. Terrell, and Welch were married on Valentine’s Day in 1942.

“I know the story goes (that) he just adored my mother,” Francess said.He shipped out a few weeks later and wrote faithfully every week.

“Just, you know, ‘I love you. Here’s when I’m going to be home,’ but they couldn’t talk about being on the sub,” Francess said.

But the letters stopped in May 1942.

The Navy said that the last radio transmission from the Grunion came on July 30, 1942. It reported heavy anti-submarine activity from the Japanese near the westernmost end of the bleak Aleutian Islands, which split the Bering Sea to the north and the Pacific Ocean to the south.

Having fired some of its 24 torpedoes while under attack in the preceding days, the sub reported having 10 of them left.

Although directed to return to Dutch Harbor, the Grunion was never seen again.

Families received telegrams in September 1942 that the Grunion crew was missing in action. Doris Welch was 19 and seven months’ pregnant.

A year later, in an Aug. 28, 1943, letter from Navy Secretary Frank Knox, Doris Welch learned that the War Department was officially listing her husband – Fire Controlman Second Class Donald Francis Welch – as “deceased.” He would have turned 24 that Sept. 17.

Donna Francess recalls how her father was described as a philosopher, while she knew her mother, who died in 2003, to be a pragmatist.

“Maybe when you lose somebody at that age, you don’t expect good things to happen,” Francess said. “I don’t know; I’m just conjecturing.”

The family almost never spoke about the Grunion. Her mother soon remarried, a military man, and the family moved around a lot.

Francess, who has lived in seven states, took her middle name as her last name in the 1970s.

“It was kind of a declaration of independence,” she said. “It was kind of when women were doing that. I just wanted to do it.”

In her car on a Saturday morning last summer, Donna Francess switched stations and got the news on National Public Radio:

NPR, Aug. 26: “The USS Grunion disappeared in July 1942, leaving 70 American families in grief. Researchers, funded by one of the sons of skipper Mannert L. “Jim” Abele, say they may have found the sub in the Bering Sea.”

“I heard, ‘the Grunion’,” Francess said, “and my heart just kind of jumped, and I said, ‘What?'”

Bruce Abele is one of the few people who can say he understands what Francess was feeling.

Lt. Cmdr. Mannert L. “Jim” Abele, then 39, was the Grunion’s skipper when it was involved in what has been described as a “confrontation” with a Japanese freighter, the Kano Maru, off an enemy-occupied island.

Bruce Abele, now 77, was 12 the last time he saw his father. He and his brothers, Brad, 74, and John, 71, provided the funding for the Williamson & Associates sonar equipment and search-and-recovery team that braved the fierce waters and weather off the Aleutians in August.

The team made headlines with a report that included sonar images of what may be the wreck of the Grunion. What appears to be a tube sits below the tumbling waters off Kiska Island at the western edge of the Aleutians.

The tube is located 1,500 miles west of Anchorage, Alaska, and half a mile beneath the surface of the Bering Sea.

This coming August, another Abele-family-funded recovery team will try to gain more information in the dangerous ocean depths to see if the grainy sonar image really is the Grunion, Bruce Abele said.

“I’ve spent a lot of time on this project; it interests me immensely,” said Abele, a retired real estate investor.

He declined to discuss the cost of the search for the Grunion. Money is not an issue, said Abele, partly because his brother, John, is co-founder of Boston Scientific Corp., a multi-billion-dollar medical equipment company.

Neither U.S. nor Japanese naval records specifically list an attack as having sunk the Grunion. Bruce Abele and Web sites devoted to U.S. Navy and Grunion history, though, say an undocumented attack could have occurred.

The Navy information office did not return a call seeking comment.

Bruce Abele said that several factors – including the site’s location in the area where the Grunion was last known to be – suggest that the sonar image may indeed be the lost submarine.

The sonar image shows an object that seems to be 290 feet long. That is shorter than the Grunion’s 311 feet, 9 inches, but some of it appears to be buried, Abele said.

Also, he said, the object in the image has a side protuberance that looks like a prop guard, a device installed on that class of submarine to guard against damage when it docked. It was rare that surface ships would have such a feature, he said.

What will really answer the question, he said, is if the research team finds a clear marking of the sub’s serial number, 216.

What sunk the Grunion is another mystery.

The area of Kiska and the Aleutians was important early in the war because of the fear that the Japanese would invade the continental United States by skipping across the island chain and driving into Alaska, Canada, and Seattle, Bruce Abele said.

That was why the Grunion was patroling those waters.

“So, this is not trivial. This is a very big thing,” Abele said.

One battle possibility was brought to the attention of the Abele family by Yutaka Iwasaki of Japan, who learned of their search on the Internet.

He translated a 2001 Japanese magazine article in which the captain of the Kano Maru, a Japanese transport ship, described a fight with a submarine off Kiska on July 30, 1942.

“(The sub was) almost certainly the Grunion, since it was the only U.S. sub reported lost in the area,” according to a 29-page story that Brad Abele has written about his father, entitled “Jim” and posted on the Internet at www.ussgrunion.com .

It is possible that damage to the Grunion from a confrontation with the Kano Maru was beyond even the superhuman repair capabilities for which submarine crews were famous, the story says.

It is even possible that a circular run by one of the Grunion’s own off-target torpedoes caused a fatal explosion, the story says.

Also, the story says, it was unlikely that the damage to the Grunion came from mines because it was believed the Japanese did not mine the waters, in order to avoid harming their own ships

“Undoubtedly,” Brad Abele writes, “many stories of heroic fights to control damage are locked forever in the depths below the waves.”

Donna Francess thinks about her father and the crew of the Grunion, looks at the war in Iraq today, and scoffs at reports that some protesters spat on troops returning from the Vietnam War.

“I don’t care how you feel philosophically, these are people who put their lives on the line,” she said.

In another twist, the USS Mannert L. Abele, a destroyer named in honor of the Grunion’s skipper, an Annapolis graduate who received the Navy Cross posthumously for extraordinary heroism, was sunk off Okinawa by Japanese kamikazes on April 12, 1945.

That was the day President Franklin D. Roosevelt died and four months before Allied victory was declared in the Pacific to end World War II.

5 Comments for 'Early WWII tragedy haunts area woman'

    billy assman
    March 17, 2008 | 5:46 pm

    this is for myriel i was a friend of your brother ronnie when you lived at 3l2 e 82nd st in nyc. i would love to contact him. also i would like to hear from you. i remember when your father went missing in july l942. i live in oradell nj with my wife helen. i remember your mother and grandmother who lived with you.

    Meryl Kretschmann
    March 18, 2008 | 3:53 am

    Yes, Hi Billy- I remember my brother hanging out with you and playing stick ball in the
    streets. We lived in 308 next to Eberhardt building. The fellows use to come up thru
    our apartment on the 3rd floor , climb over the air shaft and go up on Eberhardt’s
    building to retrieve the balls that they had batted up there. Oh , my goodness I can’t
    believe this- give me your e-mail address and phone # and I will have Ronnie contact
    you- he would be so happy to talk with you again.


    Meryl Kretschmann
    March 18, 2008 | 6:34 am

    Hi, again- Billy Assman
    Send me an e-mail with your e-mail address so
    that we can correspond. Yes- we do remember
    you and old New York- Ronnie will be happy to
    here from you. e-mail meryl@petmarket.com


    Rhonda Raye
    March 19, 2008 | 3:19 am

    Boy what a different world. -stickball (yes I’ve heard of it) but climbing from building to building along airshafts??? Sounds like something off TV.

    Meryl Kretschmann
    March 25, 2008 | 3:34 am

    Hi, Billy Assman:

    Still waiting to hear from you. See other comment I posted here- I gave you my e-mail address. I don’t know your e-mail address – please reply and contact me.
    Meryl ( Meryl & Ronald Martin NYC)

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