- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 22, 2006

They are on eternal patrol now, the old-timers say — 52 submarines that were lost during World War II, the last moments of those final dives known only to God, and the men aboard.

Now, one of them has been found. The U.S. Navy has verified that the USS Lagarto — all 1,526 tons of her — has been discovered sitting upright at the bottom of the Gulf of Thailand in about 230 feet of water, with 86 sailors entombed inside.

“We’ve got a feeling of relief, peace and a kind of elation now. It’s almost a miracle. But the discovery of the Lagarto seems to have touched a nerve across the country. We’re finding that people still appreciate what these men did 60 years ago,” said Nancy Kenney of Lake Leelanau, Mich., who was 2 when her father went down with the Lagarto.

Had he survived, Signalman 1st Class William Tucker Mabin would have turned 88 in August. A photo of Mrs. Kenney and her father snapped before he shipped out for the last time shows a kind-faced young man with matinee idol hair, gazing down at his towheaded daughter.

“We feel like we’ve found our fathers at last. You cry over that, and sometimes you don’t know what to say. There’s no Hallmark card for this. But it has helped to know that this has become an American occasion,” said Mrs. Kenney, who is now in touch with 45 other Lagarto families and an attentive press.

Such events travel to the very heart of the U.S. military.

“We owe a great debt to these men, and to all of the World War II submariners,” said Rear Adm. Jeffrey B. Cassias, commander of the Pacific Submarine Force in Pearl Harbor. “In the world’s darkest hour, they faced the greatest risk and demonstrated the most noble courage to preserve the freedom of our nations.”

Navy salvage divers have affixed a shining brass memorial plaque to the stern of the Lagarto. A formal Navy memorial service was held at the Wisconsin shipyard in Manitowoc, which built the Lagarto and 28 other subs. Gov. James E. Doyle has signed a proclamation naming May 3 as the annual USS Lagarto Remembrance Day in the state.

It’s strong evidence that Americans — friends, families and officials alike — do not forget their fallen, no matter how much time has passed.

Organized in 1993, the sole mission of the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office is to find those who have not been accounted for in the past five wars — following up on the rumors, leads, tips and sundry information that could lead to an aircraft crash site, submerged wreckage or hidden grave.

More than 78,000 service members are missing from World War II, 8,100 from the Korean War, 1,800 from the Vietnam War, 128 from the Cold War and one from the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Recovery and identification efforts are ongoing, tenacious and can last for years. But they can yield much. In May alone, the remains of seven Navy airmen were recovered and repatriated to the U.S. from the 1942 crash site of a Navy PBY-5 Catalina aircraft in Alaska. Also returned home: the remains of a 17-year-old Army corporal who died under enemy fire in the Korean War in 1950 and the four-man U.S. Army Air Corps crew of a C-46 cargo plane that went down in the Himalayas in 1944.

The Lagarto was spotted a year ago by Jamie Macleod, a Thailand-based tour dive operator who combed through war records and local fishermen’s logs, searched with sonar, then undertook the high-risk dive himself.

“It is sitting upright on the bottom in very clear water, so you can get a good idea of what it looks like,” Mr. Macleod said at the time. “Everything is still on it — all the armaments, the brass navigation lights. It’s beautiful.”

The wreckage is considered a war grave, and by international maritime law, property of the Navy and under protection of a 2004 federal law that prohibits unscrupulous entrepreneurs from looting military wreckage. Those who plunder such sites risk serious criminal charges and fines up to $100,000 a day.

The discovery of the Lagarto was a harmonious affair, however. The Navy sent the USS Salvor, a rescue-and-salvage ship, to the site for a six-day mission on June 10, with historical references at the ready. A Balao-class submarine almost 312 feet long, the Lagarto could make 20 knots on the surface and almost 9 knots submerged. It was a fierce vessel, boasting 10 torpedo tubes, a 5-inch main gun and two 20 mm anti-aircraft guns.

Those guns, plus serial numbers and the word “Manitowoc” on the propeller, were confirmation for the divers that this was indeed the same submarine lost May 3, 1945, to the Japanese minelayer Hatsutaka, which sunk the sub as it was poised to attack an enemy convoy, according to Japanese war records. The Hatsutaka was sunk by the submarine USS Hawksbill 12 days later.

“We are deeply grateful to the divers for their efforts to confirm this discovery and bring closure to the families of the Lagarto’s crew,” Adm. Cassias said.

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