Wednesday, Aug. 29, 2007

A piece of World War II history touches Bethesda

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On July 30, 1942, the USS Grunion, a Gato-class submarine, was lost off the coast of Alaska.

Bethesda resident Mary Bentz, who was 2 years old at the time, lost her uncle Carmine Anthony Parziale on the vessel that day. She has dedicated the last year to preserving his memory, along with the memories of the 69 other lost crewmembers.

Last August, 64 years after it went down, an intensive search for the Grunion began. The effort has been privately financed by the Abele brothers of Newton, Mass., the sons of the Grunion’s lieutenant commander, Mannert L. Abele.

Bentz happened to be searching on the Internet about that time and stumbled upon the Abele brothers’ work. She contacted them and asked how she could help.

She joined a group of women, affectionately known as ‘‘The Sub Ladies,” in locating family members of the Grunion’s lost crew and telling them that if the Abeles were successful, they would finally have closure on the deaths of their loved ones.

‘‘I thought, ‘My dad would really want me to do this,’” Bentz said. ‘‘We all work together, but each search is difficult in its own way.”

Friday was a big day for the search teams, both on water and on land.

The boat team confirmed their suspicions from earlier sonar images that they had finally found the Grunion as the first photographs of the sub — which is nearly a mile beneath the sea’s surface — were taken and clearly showed its markings.

And Bentz helped locate the final family of the 70 crewmembers, the family of Byron Allen Traviss living in Detroit.

‘‘We had to find families for everyone,” Bentz said. ‘‘If we can give someone else the comfort of knowing where their loved one is, then we’ve done our job.”

Bentz, along with the other two Sub Ladies — one from Kentucky and one from North Carolina — employed a variety of search tools to find the families, including genealogical Web sites, newspapers and even scouring congregations of Baptist churches.

The work was voluntary, but Bentz’s husband, Dick, said the reward was in talking to the families.

‘‘I’m present sometimes when she’s talking to people, and it’s pretty exciting,” he said. ‘‘In the process of doing this, these people come alive. It’s so interesting — the feeling — when the people find out.”

She said reaching the various family members of the lost seamen — sometimes grandchildren, sometimes nieces or nephews — with news that the Grunion may have been found has been emotional.

‘‘I cry, my husband cries,” Bentz said. ‘‘Imagine all these years of not knowing what happened, and then knowing. It’s just amazing.”

Bruce Abele, the oldest of the three brothers, was reached by phone at his home in Massachusetts. He said the Grunion was found in waters off Kiska Island in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands and what actually happened to it is still a mystery.

‘‘It’s hard to recognize as a sub,” Abele said. ‘‘The degree of damage is vast.”

Abele brother John is in the Bering Sea with the search team, and told his brother Bruce, who was at home that weather conditions were terrible Friday, with wind gusts up to 86 mph. Bruce Abele said that searchers were lucky they were able to descend the ROV (remotely operated vehicle) to take pictures.

The team plans to hold a memorial ceremony in the coming days. They plan to collect wildflowers from Kiska Island to make four wreaths — one for the Grunion and three for Japanese vessels found near the sub — and toss them into the sea.

Bruce Abele said Japanese sources indicate that the Grunion and the three Japanese crafts may have been involved in a small battle, which ended in the destruction of all four.

‘‘We hope to have a ceremony one day where families from all four ships can get together at the site,” he said. ‘‘I know it’s a long shot, but I think that would be really special.”

As for the work of Bentz and the other Sub Ladies, whom he knows only by phone, Abele said they could be useful elsewhere.

‘‘Mary is so persistent,” he said, ‘‘nothing will stop her. If she wanted to find Osama bin Laden, she could.”