Monday, April 24, 2006

 

Memories of crew stay on surface

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The Oregonian
By Margie Boulé
April 20, 2006


All anybody knew for 60 years was that the USS Lagarto, a U.S. Navy submarine, disappeared sometime between May 3 and May 4, 1945, in the Pacific.

At first the Navy didn't list the submarine, with its crew of 86 American men, as missing. "When they don't hear from a submarine for some reason, but it's on its way somewhere else, they wait until it is due," says Nancy Kenney. Nancy's father, Bill Mabin, was on the Lagarto. "It's because they would get in situations, especially in submarines, in which they had to maintain silence."

But by May 25, 1945, when the 1,500-ton, Balao- class submarine still hadn't arrived in Australia, where it was headed, the Navy realized all was not right. It sent letters to the crew's families, saying the crew was officially missing in action.

Portlander Violet Heaton remembers when her father and stepmother got the letter. "My father called me," she says. Violet's brother, Alvin Enns, was on board the Lagarto. Vi, as she prefers to be called, and her siblings were all born in Dallas, Ore., but when their mother died in childbirth, her dad remarried and moved the family to Oklahoma.

Alvin didn't like farm life, Vi says. When WWII began, "he enlisted. He didn't wait to get drafted." Alvin joined the Navy. From the beginning, she says, "he wanted to get on a submarine so bad. The trouble was he was too tall, over 6 feet." Finally, "he stooped down low enough to make him look shorter, and he finally got on the Lagarto."

Today Vi has photographs Alvin sent home just before the Lagarto left for duty in the Pacific. "You can see him in these pictures," Vi says. "He's half-a-head taller than any of the rest of them."

Alvin must have known it was dangerous duty. In WWII, submariners had the highest mortality rates of any branch of the military -- 21 percent died. But Vi's big brother knew he wanted to sail beneath the seas.

When the Lagarto went missing, it stayed missing. To this day, crew members are officially listed as missing in action.

But many of the families refused to accept that the men had died. "I have letters exchanged between my mother and other wives and mothers," says Nancy Kenney, who lives in Michigan today. "Many of them were hoping after the war they would find the crew on an island. Some of them even wrote of hoping they might be held as prisoners of war."

But none of the men came home. In fact, Japanese military records indicated a mine-layer had attacked a U.S. submarine near where the Lagarto had last been located. But no one could confirm what ship had been hit, and whether it had sunk.

Nancy Kenney's mother died, never knowing what happened to her husband in 1945. Vi Heaton's father died, never knowing what had become of Alvin.

And then, in May of last year, a British diver was exploring waters 100 miles off the coast of Thailand, where for decades local fishermen had reported something was snagging their nets. The diver found a sunken submarine. It was the USS Lagarto.

The news did not make a big splash around the world. Nancy Kenney's son learned the ship had been discovered while doing an Internet search last summer.

Nancy decided other family members needed to know the ship had been located. So she's spent the last year tracing relatives of the 86 victims. Two weeks ago she called Vi Heaton, in Portland.

Vi was glad to have answers, 61 years after her brother disappeared. "It's brought back all kinds of memories," she says. "When my brother went to war I was so proud of him I couldn't believe it. I was uniform-crazy myself, and he looked so handsome." Alvin was young -- not even 20 years old, Vi says. She was 18.

"He came home once on leave, and he was so happy to be on that sub," Vi says. "I think he thought of it like he was a kid with a toy. Even though it was huge and there were over 80 men on board."

She remembers their growing-up years, when Alvin would tease her, and they'd get in trouble. "He liked to get me upset," she laughs.

Violet is 79 today and in poor health. So she won't be able to travel to the Wisconsin Maritime Museum in Manitowok, Wisc., where the sub was built, for a memorial service for the men of the Lagarto. The commander of the Pacific Submarine Force of the Navy, the governor of Wisconsin and the diver who discovered the sub will be there, and all family members are invited.

"We've found relatives of 47 or the 86," says Nancy Kenney. She's still looking for family members of shipmate William Graves, who grew up in Portland.

"Every time I get tired, I think of my father," Nancy says. "He had a little diary he left, from an earlier patrol. He talks of being underwater for long periods of time, and how hot it was. He talks of being depth charged, hearing bombs all around them exploding. And he talks about the fear among the men, and how the older crew members tried to be stoic for the younger crew members.

"They went through so much, and they died for our country. It may have been 61 years ago, but I think we owe them something."

Vi Heaton agrees. "It was 61 years ago, but my brother was so young. It still makes me sad."


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