Many of us don’t have a direct connection with people who have served, and even fewer know someone who died while serving. When 54 names of the fallen are read aloud during the Riverside Memorial Day ceremony, it is indeed solemn, but for most present there’s no connecting those names with actual people.
But Donald A. Abel was an actual person, a classmate at Riverside-Brookfield High School, a kid from the neighborhood. He was 22 when he died. No one can ever recount exactly how Donald died, though the moments before it surely were terrifying, because everyone present for his death died at the same time.
Donald grew up at 251 Herrick Road, a modest two-story home just a few doors down now, incidentally, from the home of Tom Sisulak, who organizes Riverside’s Memorial Day ceremony.
He graduated from Riverside-Brookfield High School in 1940 at the age of 17. A bright kid, Donald would enroll that fall at the University of Chicago.
By June of 1945 – just two months shy of Japan’s unconditional surrender — Donald was a lieutenant junior grade (the U.S. Navy’s equivalent of a 1st lieutenant) serving aboard the submarine USS Bonefish, which by that time had completed seven war patrols in the Pacific. Donald cut a dashing figure, with wavy dark hair and pencil-thin mustache reminiscent of Clark Gable’s.
It’s not clear when Donald joined the crew of the USS Bonefish, but he was listed as a member of the crew during its eighth, and final, war patrol just off the west coast of Japan.
On June 18, 1945, according to research on the website On Eternal Patrol, the Bonefish received permission to patrol Toyama Bay, with orders to rendezvous with other submarines on the mission on June 24 in the Sea of Japan.
When June 24 arrived, however, the Bonefish was a no-show. Japanese records apparently noted a submarine attack in Toyama Bay on June 19, 1945 and that the Japanese counterattack ended when debris and a large oil slick appeared on the surface of the water. Undoubtedly, that was evidence the USS Bonefish had been sunk.
The Navy presumed the ship lost a few weeks later. But Donald’s family had to watch his death play out in slow motion. The Navy didn’t announce the loss of the submarine publicly until Aug. 11, 1945, two days after the U.S. had dropped its second atomic bomb on Japan, which would officially surrender within a week.
USS Bonefish’s 85 crew members officially were declared dead a year later, on July 15, 1946.
At home in Chicago, Donald’s wife was pregnant with a child, Donald A. Abel II, who would never know his father, interred to this day in a wrecked submarine at the bottom of Toyama Bay off the coast of Japan.