Divers Discover What Really Happened To A Lost WWII Submarine And Its Crew
During the plight of the second World War, there were many casualties that resulted from years of combat, the effects of which can still be felt until today. Countless lives were lost, and some experts are trying to shed some light on what happened to those who mysteriously disappeared from the war.
In June 2019, Tim Taylor and his team attempted to look for a U.S. submarine that mysteriously disappeared during WWII. By using advanced equipment to scour the depths of the ocean, Taylor was able to stumble upon a chilling discovery he never expected to see.
A Noble Cause
Taylor and his team of researchers were looking for the remains of the SS-208, or more commonly known as the U.S.S. Grayback.
Searching for the remnants of the U.S.S. Grayback was part of the efforts to recover the other 52 U.S. submarines that went missing during WWII, an operation which was named the Lost 52 Project. Since March of 1944, the U.S. Navy has reported these marine vessels, one of which is the Grayback, as missing.
An Important Message
According to details from the Lost 52 Project, Grayback was last seen during its final mission on January 28, 1944. The U.S. vessel took off from Pearl Harbor to accomplish its tenth assignment.
However, before the submarine completely disappeared, it sent a message back to its base on February 24 of the same year. In its message during that day, Grayback reported that they were able to take down Japanese freighters Toshin Maru and Taikei Maru, as well as another two vessels.
The Grayback also allegedly made contact the following day, February 25, to report that it had successfully hit the Japanese marine vessel, Asama Maru, and sunk another Japanese ship, the Nanpo Maru.
Due to these hits on enemy vessels, the U.S. submarine was able to use up almost all of its ammunition, leaving them with only two torpedoes. This prompted its crew to head to Midway Atoll, located in the North Pacific, to get some fresh supplies. That was the last time anyone heard of the submarine.
Lost At Sea
Days after the Grayback sent a message of its encounter with Asama Maru, they became quiet and failed to send anymore messages regarding their location and their condition. The Navy base didn't think anything of it and waited for the submarine crew’s safe arrival at Midway Atoll.
The Grayback was expected to be there at around March 7, 1944. When the submarine didn’t arrive to dock on its port, the authorities' worst fears turned into reality. By March 30, the Grayback was officially declared missing along with its crew of 80 people.
According to historical data, the U.S.S. Grayback’s construction started on April 30, 1940 at the Electric Boat Company in Groton, Connecticut. During WWII, submarines were quite common since these underwater vessels were able to stealthily take out their enemies at sea, compared to battle ships that can easily be spotted.
Everything was going smoothly since the Electric Boat Company was an expert in its field, building submarines since 1899. The submarine builder rose to fame when it created the U.S.S. Holland, the U.S. Navy’s very first submarine.
At the height of WWI, the Electric Boat Company and shipyards affiliated to it have constructed 85 submarines for the British Royal Navy, as well as the U.S. Navy. During the second world war, the submarine builder was able to construct 74 other submarines that were used for battle.
One of those submarines was the U.S.S. Grayback. The Grayback was what they called a Tambor-type submarine. Electric Boat built 12 of its kind in which seven were destroyed during combat. Due to its streak, Tambor submarines were pulled out from battle.
But the U.S.S. Grayback was a grand sight to see. Upon its completion, it measured a whopping 300 feet from end to end, and a little over 27 feet at its widest point. The submarine was also able to travel at a maximum surface speed of around 20 knots and under 9 knots when submerged.
It could stay submerged for up to 48 hours when its speed is reduced. Grayback weighs 2,410 tons when displaced underwater, which is about less than one-fifth the size of today's Virginia-class submarines. Still, it did its job.
Weapon Of Choice
Truly, the Grayback was a steadfast ship, consisting of two propellers powered by four motors. The submarine was able to carry with it a total of 60 men, but proved to have been able to handle up to 80 people.
Aside from 80 men, the Grayback was also able to transport ten torpedo tubes, each measuring 21 inches. Other weapons that the crew brought along are a few 50-caliber machine guns, Bofors, and Oerlikon cannons which the passengers can use in case of an air attack.
Finally, after ten months of construction, the Grayback was launched on January 31, 1941. The U.S. Navy then first used the marine vessel for a shakedown cruise on June 30 under the command of Lieutenant Willard A. Saunders.
This gave them the chance to see what the submarine can really do during battle. Results from the testing phase proved to be satisfactory, which is why they officially took the vessel to patrol along Chesapeake Bay and the Caribbean in September 1941.
Launch Into Battle
Like any other ship that goes into battle, the Grayback acquired some visible wear and tear which needed to be repaired. It underwent a routine maintenance check at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard on the coast of Maine then proceeded to Pearl Harbor by February 1942.
Since the US was already involved in the world war, it embarked on its first ever wartime patrol on February 15 passing through the Pacific and sailing along the coasts of Guam, where Japan attacked in December 1941.
Naturally, the Grayback also patrolled other areas where their Japanese enemies would normally be seen. The vessel traversed areas near Saipan, a location which was then considered as Japanese territory.
Monitoring the movement of their opponents for three weeks, the U.S. Navy crew was faced with an issue that almost cost them their lives. For four days, the Grayback tried to locate an enemy vessel, to no avail. Eventually, the Japanese ship saw them and fired two torpedoes. Luckily, they were able to escape unharmed.
Although they weren’t able to strike back at their opponents after their unexpected attack, the Grayback was able to sink a Japanese cargo vessel that weighed around 3,291 tons shortly after.
While its first patrolling experience was quite dangerous, the second time it patrolled didn’t pose any threats to the entire crew. It was able to dock safely at Fremantle, a port in Western Australia, which then became its usual docking place each time it finished with an assignment.
The next two missions of the Grayback were again full of mishaps. Patrolling the South China Sea, the U.S. Navy on board the submarine encountered Axis patrol boats which disrupted its operations. The Grayback also encountered nighttime assaults, making it difficult for the crew to navigate the perilous waters.
Despite this, they were still able to successfully damage an enemy submarine and a few merchant ships. Again, the Grayback returned to the port to replenish its weaponry and to conduct repairs. By December 7, 1942, the vessel set off for its fifth mission.
A Fortunate Escape
By December 25, 1942, the Grayback was able to come across four of the enemy’s landing barges. The crew was also able to successfully damage and sink all four of them through a surprise attack. After four days, they encountered more enemies during their patrol. Japanese vessels suddenly fired torpedoes in their direction.
With a strike of luck, the American vessel was able to dodge the attack and escape the clutches of their Japanese opponents. The back and forth attacks went on until the start of 1943, when they came across the Imperial Japanese Navy vessel I-18, which unfortunately escaped.
The Grayback’s fifth mission may well be considered as its most noteworthy due to the countless successful attacks the crew was able to conduct.
Aside from damaging enemy ships, the Grayback crew was also able to rescue six of their fellow Americans who were seen floating on the wreckage of their Martin B-26 Marauder bomber at Munda Bay, Solomon Islands. If two submariners didn’t decide to emerge onto shore, then they wouldn’t have been able to retrieve the stranded American airmen.
The next evening, the submarine crew transported the stranded airmen to safety. This noble feat earned Captain Saunders’ successor, Commander Edward C. Stephan, a Navy Cross award and a U.S. Army Silver Star, two of the most prestigious honors any American soldier could possibly receive.
After numerous bountiful events, the Grayback’s lucky streak became more apparent when it attacked several Japanese vessels with the torpedoes it had on board. Despite hitting their opponents, the American vessel was damaged from a counter-attack launched by the enemy.
This attack resulted in major damages to one of the hatches on the Grayback’s hull. This led to a potentially threatening leakage that compelled the crew to retreat and dock on its usual port in Australia to undergo extensive repairs.
Little did they know that their luck had already run out upon their return for another mission to keep an eye out on enemy activity. During their next assignment in February 1943, the advances they made on their enemies were consistently unsuccessful due to a faulty radar that was recently installed in the submarine.
Even though the newly fitted radar made them blow their cover, the Grayback’s crew still lived another day and were able to conduct a seventh tour on April 25, 1943. During this time, the Grayback crossed paths with a Japanese fleet. This was a goldmine for the team, and they successfully took down their merchant ship, the Yodogawa Maru, using two torpedoes.
After several days, the Grayback fired more torpedoes at an enemy destroyer and sank the cargo ship England Maru the day after. Wave after wave of successful attacks were launched by the American crew until they headed back to Pearl Harbor, then to San Francisco for a major modification.
In any case, the Grayback was assigned to another mission after its alteration. The submarine prepared for its eighth mission on September 12, 1943, led by Commander John Anderson Moore. The Grayback left Pearl Harbor going to Midway Atoll together with another American submarine, the U.S.S. Shad.
Once they arrived at their destination, a third submarine, the U.S.S. Cero, accompanied them. In the Navy, three submarines that join forces are called a “wolfpack.” They adopted this strategy from German U-boats and proved to be highly successful in countering enemy attacks.
The new tactic that the team of US Navy soldiers acquired, though effective, cost them much of their weapons, particularly their torpedoes. Torpedoes are perhaps the most important and most essential weapons that submarines should carry into battle.
By successfully taking down 38,000 tons worth of Japanese shipping and damaging 3,000 tons more, the three submarines exhausted all their firearms, causing them to return to Midway Atoll to reload their artillery. They safely arrived on the dock on November 10, 1943. Because of the success of their assignment, Commander Moore was able to earn himself a Navy Cross, the second award for a Grayback crew.
Seemingly, the Grayback has a habit of using up all of its weaponry. For its ninth mission, the American sub took the risk of exhausting all of its torpedoes within a span of five days in order to take a jab at four Japanese ships.
Although what they did was quite risky, their attempts to take down enemy vessels were successful. They then went back to Pearl Harbor and reported their triumphant endeavors. Upon bringing good news to the American camp, they saw fit to bestow another Navy Cross to Commander Moore.
The U.S.S. Grayback stayed in Pearl Harbor for over three weeks, then proceeded to accomplish its tenth mission. What the crew and the entire Navy command didn’t know was that this is the submarine’s final descent from the shores of Pearl Harbor. On January 28, 1944, the Grayback sealed its fate.
Although the crew met a terrible fate, their final mission was a huge victory for them. The American sub sank 21,594 tons of Japanese shipping craft without any assistance from other US vessels, earning Commander Moore his third Navy Cross after his untimely demise. At the same time, the Grayback was also given eight battle stars for its monumental achievements.
After its disappearance, the entire US Navy was at a loss, especially since they had no clue of what transpired on the day the Grayback went missing. Nobody knew exactly what happened to its crew of 80 people, but the Navy hypothesized that the vessel sank somewhere in the southeastern region of Okinawa, Japan.
However, years passed and they still haven’t the slightest idea on the actual location of the Grayback. They later found out that their speculation was wrong.
The Navy basically made assumptions based on Japanese data. Upon closer inspection, they found out that there was a minor error to their figures. They then realized that what they originally thought was the Grayback’s location turned out to be miles away from the actual site where the submarine sunk.
In 2018, Tim Taylor started to plan out how to retrieve these lost vessels from WWII and consequently led to the founding of the Lost 52 Project, an organization which intends to track down all 52 of the missing WWII submarines.
The Lost 52 Project
Taylor decided to pursue the Lost 52 Project after he and his team successfully recovered the remains of the U.S. submarine R-12, also known as the SS-89. The American war vessel has been missing since 1943 and had 42 crew members on board.
It allegedly disappeared off the coast of Florida during a training exercise. The U.S.S. R-12 was actually one of the older submarines in the Navy that was retired, but was later recalled when the second world war started.
In October 1940, the R-12 officially started with its first mission and was sent to patrol the vicinity of the Panama Canal, but was then asked to return to New London after a year. Following the Pearl Harbor attack in December 1941, the R-12 went back to patrol around the Panama Canal for one more year.
It was then reassigned as a training vessel in Florida in May 1943. The month after its reassignment, one part of the submarine started taking in water which led to its sinking 600 feet below the sea.
Only five of the R-12’s crew members were lucky enough to survive the accident since they were above deck when the tragedy struck. No one knew for sure what caused the accident, until Taylor and his team found the submarine’s remains in the year 2010, almost seven decades after it was reported missing.
Once they were able to gather enough data and captured a few images of the vessel, Taylor and his crew contacted some surviving relatives of the victims of the wreckage.
Since their effort was a huge success, Taylor decided to move forward with the Lost 52 Project to help the families of the other 3,505 submarine crew who are still missing since WWII. Over the past few years, Taylor was able to find the location of five other submarines.
Taylor’s main objective at that point was not only to locate the submarines and find out what happened to the crew, but to give their loved ones some closure. It was also his goal to gather enough materials from the site of wreckage to educate other people.
With all the efforts locating different submarines in various parts of the globe, the Lost 52 Project eventually ended up finding other WWII vessels that were also lost during the war.
Taylor’s project found the U.S.S. Grunion off the coast of Alaska while it was looking for the R-12 and the Grayback. They also located the U.S.S. S-28 in Hawaiian territory. Meanwhile, the U.S.S. Stickleback was also discovered in the deep waters of the island.
The U.S.S. Grayback
In his search for the whereabouts of the U.S.S. Grayback, Tim Taylor enlisted the help of a Japanese researcher, Yutaka Iwasaki. It was a long shot, but Taylor was determined to find out what really happened to the American sub.
Taylor requested the Japanese researcher to look over the files from the day that the Grayback went missing. Iwasaki reviewed the records of the Sasebo base, which was used by the Japanese Imperial Navy during the second world war.
A Minor Error
There, he found several records, including daily radio updates that came from Naha on Okinawa Island. This was the same location which the Japanese used as a naval air facility. Iwasaki then started with his investigation, in which he found shocking details from 1944.
The researcher saw a minor error that played a major role in the disappearance of the Grayback submarine and its crew members. According to Iwasaki, he found a single-digit error from the radio transmission of the Grayback crew.
Based on what Iwasaki found, there was a mistake on the transcription of the radio signals sent by the American submarine’s crew members. On February 27, 1944, Sasebo received the radio transmission from the Naha air base.
This was only days after the Grayback returned to its base and was last seen. According to the corrections made on the transcription, the Grayback reported an attack by a Nakajima B5N bomber which came from an aircraft carrier. This was the final message, perhaps a distress signal, sent out by the Grayback’s passengers.
The Nakajima B5N was commonly used by the Imperial Japanese Navy when conducting air attacks during WWII. It was a torpedo bomber aboard a carrier-based aircraft, which made it easy for Japanese soldiers to target their enemies from below.
Unfortunately for the Grayback, they were spotted by their opponents and were attacked on February 27 with a 500-pound bomb. The revised transcription also mentioned that the Grayback was traversing the surface of the ocean, which made them easy to see.
Files From The Past
Almost immediately, the Grayback exploded from the impact of the bomb that their Japanese enemies dropped on them, leaving no survivors on board. When interviewed by the New York Times, Iwasaki was able to describe what he found in the files he retrieved from the time of WWII.
He said that the crew members were able to give their exact location when they provided the longitude and latitude when the attack occurred. Apparently, what the US Navy assumed to be the location of the Grayback’s wreckage was miles away from where they were really located.
If Taylor hadn’t asked Iwasaki for help, they would never have guessed that the Grayback was 100 miles away from what the US Navy pinpointed as the place where the submarine sank in 1944.
With the details provided by Iwasaki in his revised transcription of the Grayback crew’s final message, he then set out on a mission to see if the Grayback was truly where it is. Together with his team, they used advanced machineries to find the US submarine.
A Shocking Discovery
All their hard work eventually paid off when they got a glimpse of the decades old Grayback submarine at the bottom of the sea. Upon seeing the remnants of the Grayback for the first time after so many years, Taylor and his crew couldn’t help but feel various degrees of emotion.
In an interview with New York Times, Taylor described how overwhelmed he and his team felt when they found the vessel. Happiness was one, but finding the bodies of the 80 crew members gave them a type of sadness that was difficult for them to overcome.
A Sigh Of Relief
Still, finally locating the Grayback was a cause for celebration since they were able to finally reach out to the surviving family members of the Navy unit. Gloria Hurney, whose uncle Raymond Parks was one of the lives lost when the Grayback sank, finally felt peace upon finding out that the Lost 52 Project team members had some good news for her.
In an interview with ABC News in November 2019, she said, “There’s a book I read, and it says these ships are known only to God. But now we know where the Grayback is.”
In another interview with CNN, Hurney was able to reveal how she truly felt when she first found out that the crew of the U.S.S. Grayback have finally been found.
According to her, this was an important moment in her life which gave her closure and answers to her longtime questions on the fate of the submarine. Once she heard the news, she felt a mix of shock and grief, but was later replaced with feelings of peace and comfort.
Meanwhile, another relative of a Navy crew serving on board the Grayback shared a heartfelt tribute she made for her long lost relative.
Kathy Taylor, who was the niece and goddaughter of John Patrick King – an electrician’s mate, third class in the submarine – said in an interview with ABC News, “I committed from the very beginning, from a little girl, that I was gonna find him or follow him or keep his memory alive – whatever I could do.”
The Second Grayback
Since the Grayback had many achievements and contributions to its country during the second world war, many saw it as fitting enough to create a newer version of the lost vessel. In July 1957, just 14 years after the original sub sank, SSG-574, or the second Grayback submarine, was first used by the US Navy.
Ironically, Commander John A. Moore’s widow, Virginia S. Moore was asked to launch the vessel. Although the Grayback will forever rest at the bottom of the sea, its memory will surely live on with the creation of the second Grayback.
While the old Grayback was already considered ahead of its time due to its enormous size and capability to carry a variety of weaponry, the new Grayback was even better.
Upon its construction at the Mare Island Naval Shipyard in California, the builders kept in mind to include the latest technology and major upgrades to the craft. In fact, the new version of the Grayback carries with it not only torpedoes, but also missiles which can easily strike its enemies on land.
The Regulus II, which is a sea-to-surface missile, was installed in the modern counterpart of the first Grayback submarine. This type of missile allows the sub to defend itself from land-based attacks.
Unfortunately, the Grayback wasn’t able to fully use the missile in battle because the weapons program was abruptly put to a halt. However, it was still able to test four Regulus I missiles during practice. The submarine was then sent to Pearl Harbor, which served as its base, in February 1959.
The second Grayback was also increased in size. While the original submarine was 300 feet in length, the newer Grayback was upgraded to reach 317 feet in length and still over 27 feet in its widest area.
Aside from having Regulus I missiles, the new Grayback was also able to carry with it nuclear weapons, as well as having an additional four torpedoes from its original four-tube torpedo carrier. The front part of the vessel carried six torpedoes, while the other two weapons were placed near the back.
Since the second Grayback was assigned to be based at Pearl Harbor, it was also sent to other different areas, such as Alaska and Japan, to exhaust its full potential. It spent most of its time on patrol in these areas up until 1963.
A huge chunk of its time in service was spent underwater. So much time spent below the surface had its consequences. Unfortunately, being submerged for too long under the sea had a negative effect on the US submarine's internal system.
No matter how new or modern the second Grayback is, it’s still not safe from accidents. In August 1963, the submarine was almost burned up in the middle of the sea when it sailed through the surface to recharge its batteries. The currents in the area were too strong that the waves heavily damaged its main battery source.
This resulted in a spark that quickly blew up into flames which crawled its way into the crew’s sleeping quarters. Although one of the crew members was engulfed in the fire, the five other people in the submarine survived with only a few injuries.
A New Role
The damaged ship was quickly taken in for repairs and reconstruction. After being overhauled, it was sent back for regular use. After that unexpected incident, the submarine spent long years in service without any major problems.
But due to its age and the release of more modern submarines and weapons, such as the Polaris missiles, the Grayback had to be recalled in May 1964. However, it quickly went back into service in August 1968 as an amphibious transport submarine that was able to accommodate 67 people.
As a transport vessel, it carried a unit of Navy SEALs going to Vietnam in June 1972. These men were tasked to carry out Operation Thunderhead, which aims to rescue two American airmen who allegedly escaped a Viet Cong prison camp.
What the Navy crew didn’t know was that the mission had been aborted which cost the life of one SEAL, Lieutenant Melvin Spence Dry, when he attempted to jump out of a helicopter even though he was fully equipped with a parachute.
The Grayback’s lifespan eventually neared its end. In 1982, more mishaps came its way. In one incident, the Navy divers aboard the Grayback almost lost their lives when one of the vessel’s ventilation valves started to malfunction.
Five people inside the submarine did not make it out alive when they failed to escape the sub’s decompression chamber. This all happened when the Grayback was traversing Subic Bay in the Philippines during one of the training dives of the Navy crew.
The End Of Grayback
Finally, the Grayback was decommissioned in January 1984 following one tragic event after another. However, it served one final task. For unknown reasons, the American submarine was painted a bright shade of orange.
With its new color, it was then hauled to Subic Bay in the Philippines, the area where it last encountered an accident, on April 13, 1986. Afterwards, the orange vessel was used for target practice, bringing an end to the long history of the U.S.S. Grayback.