Grand Haven man served on recently identified sunken submarine

5:48 AM, Feb 4, 2010   |    comments
  • USS Flier
  • Al Jacobson. Courtesy Grand Haven Tribune
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GRAND HAVEN, Mich. (Grand Haven Tribune)- The U.S. Navy has identified the wreckage of a vessel found in waters near the Philippines as the submarine a Grand Haven man served on during World War II.

The remains of the USS Flier were found in the Balabac Strait area of the Philippines in the spring of 2009 by the father and son dive team of Mike and Warren Fletcher, but the Navy was not able to confirm the sub's identity until this week.

According to the Navy, no other U.S. or Japanese sub was ever reported lost in that area, and video footage of the gun mount and radar antenna clearly match historical photographs of the sub.

The Flier struck a mine while transiting shallow water on Aug. 13, 1944, and quickly sank. Grand Haven resident Al Jacobson was one of 14 crewmen to escape the sinking sub, and one of only eight to survive the swim to shore.

Those men were the first of the war's Pacific Theater to escape, remain uncaptured and return safely to the U.S. from a sunken submarine.

Jacobson was assigned to another submarine, the USS Ling, which was en route to the Pacific when World War II ended. He returned to Grand Haven and worked at the Grand Haven Brass Foundry for four decades, serving as its president for 13 years. He was also a founding director of JSJ Corp. in 1972.

Although Al Jacobson died in October 2008 at the age of 86, he was always interested in finding out exactly what happened to his ship and crewmates, his sons Nelson and Steve said.

"As an officer, he always felt responsible for his crew, for the boat," said Nelson Jacobson, who now serves as president and CEO of JSJ Corp. "He felt it was his obligation to pursue this."


Al Jacobson took some notes regarding the Flier when he first returned home from the Pacific, Nelson said, and began to dedicate much more time to locating the sub after he retired in the early 1990s. The big break in the search came in 1995 when the Navy declassified many documents related to the loss of the Flier, Nelson Jacobson said.

"At that point, the project really accelerated," Nelson said.

Serving as an ensign aboard the Flier, Al Jacobson was the boat's navigation officer the night it sank. In fact, Jacobson had charted the boat's coordinates moments before it struck the mine, his son said.

The Jacobsons took a trip to the Philippines in 1998 and traced the route the survivors of the Flier took. They also met with members of the guerilla unit that helped the men escape the enemy. Steve Jacobson said his father wanted to dive for the boat at that time.

Al didn't talk much about the Flier until the 1980s, Steve recalls, but the talk may have spurred his interest in finding the boat.

"I think talking about it brought back a lot of memories, a lot of questions," Steve said. "He wanted to answer the questions for those who lost their lives."


After Al Jacobson died, his family - Nelson, Steve, their sister Christine, and their spouses and children - carried on his search for the Flier. The search for the boat's remains ramped up when yap films contacted Steve Jacobson in early 2009. The Toronto-based film company had seen Al Jacobson's name in Michael Sturma's "The U.S.S. Flier: Death and Survival on a World War II Submarine," and wanted to use his research to film a documentary on locating the sub.

Yap films contacted the Fletchers, of "Dive Detectives" TV show fame, and the pair began diving in April 2009. Steve Jacobson and his nephew, Nelson Jr., were with them. Steve Jacobson was watching a sonar demonstration when the outline of the Flier came on the screen, he said.

"That was probably the most emotional moment," Steve said. "It was something that was obviously very important to (my dad)."


Understanding the story of the Flier helped Steve Jacobson more fully understand his father, he said. Having his nephew - who is around the same age as Al was when he left for the war - present deepened the experience even more.

"As a son, I couldn't be more thrilled to see all this," Steve said.

Now that the Navy has identified the Flier, production of the documentary will continue, Nelson Sr. said, although there is no timetable for when it will be released.

But the most important thing for the Jacobson family is the sense of closure they hope the news brings to the families of the 78 crewmen of the Flier.

Even though Al Jacobson couldn't bring the crew members home, he wanted to understand what happened to them and taught his children to follow through - even if it took 64 years, Nelson said. Of all the things his father accomplished in his life, he believes Al would feel the most satisfied with the discovery of the Flier.

"My dad would say it was a good team win," Nelson said. "It was about bringing closure to the families; that was his passion."

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