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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Tuesday, February 2, 2010

U.S. submarine, sunk in 1944, found

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Seven of the eight survivors of the USS Flier sinking; the eighth was in the sick bay. Al Jacobson stands at right.

Jacobson family photograph

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Hawaii news photo - The Honolulu Advertiser

Ensign Al Jacobson

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On the night of Aug. 13, 1944, Ensign Al Jacobson was topside on the USS Flier as the submarine raced to intercept a Japanese convoy reported to be off Palawan in the Philippines.

Jacobson, then 22, was taken by the beauty that surrounded him.

"He said it was actually one of the prettiest moments of his life. There were mountains all around and the sunset and just extraordinary beauty," his son, Nelson, recalled his father saying.

It was a moment of tranquility that was suddenly replaced by the hellish reality of war.

The 311-foot sub sank in 30 seconds when a hole was torn in the hull by what survivors and historians believe was a mine. Only 14 men made it out. Only eight of those, including Jacobson, made it to safety.

The U.S. Pacific Fleet submarine force yesterday confirmed that a sunken sub found in the Balabac Strait in 330 feet of water is the Flier.

"I am honored to announce that, with video evidence and information provided by a team from YAP Films and assistance from the Naval History and Heritage Command, USS Flier has been located," said Rear Adm. Douglas McAneny, commander of the Pacific submarine force. "We hope this announcement will provide some closure to the families of the 78 crewmen lost when Flier struck a mine in 1944."

Flier is the fifth sunken World War II U.S. submarine to be found since 2005.

The Flier's sinking highlights the danger faced by Pacific Fleet submariners during World War II. According to the Navy, of the 288 subs deployed in the Atlantic and Pacific, 52 were lost, with 48 destroyed in Pacific war zones.

Submariners comprised only 1.6 percent of the Navy but suffered the highest losses in the U.S. armed forces, with 22 percent killed in World War II, the service said.

Jacobson was the last of the Flier survivors when he died in 2008. He had gathered as much information as he could about the Flier's demise and location to fully understand what happened, his family said. They carried on the quest after he died.

In spring 2009, with the aid of the Jacobson family, a team from Toronto-based YAP Films located the wreckage of the Flier.

The Navy said father-and-son divers Mike and Warren Fletcher of the television show "Dive Detectives" captured the first footage of the rusting submarine since it went down, and provided the imagery to the Naval History and Heritage Command to confirm the identification.

"It's an emotional and exciting time for us, and obviously it's not just my father's sub, it's the whole crew, and the whole idea that we're sort of bringing closure to this extraordinary story," said Nelson Jacobson, who lives in Michigan.

His father was "very blessed later in life with a successful career, and he was an engineer and problem solver and wanted to really understand what happened that evening," he added.

The Flier had left Pearl Harbor in January 1944 but ran aground at Midway Island. After repairs in California, the Flier again left Pearl in May of that year and attacked several Japanese ships.

The night of the sinking, as the 1,525-ton Gato-class submarine made 18 knots, nine men were on deck on lookout. Jacobson was sitting in the gunner's seat of the aft gun when the sub exploded and started going down, his son said.

"All he could think about were those great big brass propellers churning right past him," Nelson Jacobson said.

The explosion came at 10 p.m. In the darkness, the survivors treaded water until the moonrise provided some light, and at about 4 a.m. the men began to make their way toward a silhouette of land, said Michael Sturma in his book, "The USS Flier: Death and Survival on a World War II Submarine."

By then, some of the men had disappeared. The remaining men clung to palm trunks and swam landward. For the next five days the survivors swam and used makeshift rafts to hop from one coral outcropping to another, surviving on coconuts, before they were aided by Filipinos.

Clad only in underwear, the Flier survivors were severely sunburned, and their feet were gashed and bleeding from walking across sharp coral, Sturma said.

Sturma said the eight Flier sailors were the first Americans of the Pacific war to survive a submarine sinking and make it back to the United States.