USS Grayback (SS-208) Found After 75 Years; What Was Onboard Was Unexpected

Photo Credit: US Government / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Photo Credit: US Government / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

Seventy-five years after she first disappeared off the coast of Okinawa, the wreck of the USS Grayback (SS-208) was discovered at the bottom of the Philippine Sea, more than 100 nautical miles from where the US Navy described her as being. The astounding discovery finally brought peace to the families of the 80 American sailors who were tragically lost in the submarine’s sinking.

USS Grayback (SS-208)

USS Tambor (SS-198) surfacing near Diamond Head
USS Tambor (SS-198), the lead vessel in the Tambor-class of submarines. (Photo Credit: Unknown Author / United States Federal Government / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The USS Grayback was commissioned on June 30, 1941, with Lt. William A. Saunders placed in command of the Tambor-class vessel. She was part of the US Navy’s first successful fleet submarines, and was crucial to the Allied success in the Pacific Theater.

Powered by four General Motors V16 diesel engines, four high-speed General Electric electric motors and two 126-cell Sargo batteries, Grayback was capable of traveling at 20.4 knots when surfaced and 8.75 knots when submerged. She had a range of 11,000 nautical miles at 10 knots, and could remain submerged for 48 hours straight when traveling at two knots.

To ensure she was able to adequately engage with enemy vessels, Grayback was armed with 24 torpedoes in ten 21-inch torpedo tubes, a Bofors 40 mm and Oerlikon 20 mm cannon, and a single three-inch deck gun. To ensure everything ran smoothly, the submarine’s crew consisted of 54 enlisted men and six officers.

USS Grayback‘s (SS-208) service during World War II

USS Grayback (SS-208) surfacing at sea
USS Grayback (SS-208), 1941. (Photo Credit: Unknown Author / U.S. National Archives and Records Administration / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Following the US entry into World War II after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the USS Grayback began to see action. Originally commissioned into the Atlantic Fleet, she was 20th in total tonnage sunk by American submarines, taking out 14 enemy ships (63,835 tons). She was also awarded eight battle stars for her service throughout the conflict.

In February 1942, Grayback departed from Maine for Hawaii. The submarine’s first war patrol took her along the coasts of Saipan and Guam, where she had a four-day standoff with a Japanese submarine. The enemy vessel fired two torpedoes at Grayback and followed her until she managed to escape. A month later, the submarine sank her first ship, the Japanese cargo vessel Ishikari Maru.

Grayback later conducted patrols in the South China Sea and St. George’s Passage, where the submarine was challenged by the bright moonlight, intense enemy patrols and treacherous waters. Despite these hurdles, the presence of her and her sister ships was instrumental in the success of the Guadalcanal Campaign, America’s first major land offensive in the Pacific.

Grayback garnered an impressive number of kills after this, and was even credited with saving the lives of six crewmen who’d survived the crash of their Martin B-26 Marauder in the Solomon Islands. While she experienced a string of bad luck during her sixth patrol, the submarine’s reputation made a turn for the better in later patrols, one of which saw her join one of the first wolfpacks organized by the Submarine Force.

Of all her patrols, it was Grayback‘s 10th that was her most successful – and also the submarine’s last.

A successful final mission in the Pacific Theater

Nakajima B5N2 in flight
Captured Japanese Nakajima B5N2, similar to the one that attacked the USS Grayback (SS-208), 1943. (Photo Credit: U.S. Navy / Naval History and Heritage Command / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

On February 24, 1944, the USS Grayback‘s crew radioed that they’d sunk two Japanese cargo ships and damaged two others. The following day, they transmitted their last report, which stated they’d sunk the enemy tanker Nanho Maru and left Asama Maru damaged. With only two torpedoes left, the submarine was ordered to return to base in Fremantle, Western Australia.

Grayback was supposed to arrive at Midway Island on March 7, 1944, but was nowhere to be found. By March 30, she was officially listed as missing, with no survivors.

Captured Japanese records paint a picture of Grayback‘s final moments. Having attacked convoy Hi-40 a few days prior, the submarine used her last two torpedoes to sink the cargo ship Ceylon Maru in the East China Sea on February 27. She was then spotted by a Nakajima B5N torpedo bomber and hit with a 500-pound bomb.

Grayback reportedly “exploded and sank immediately” to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, after which anti-submarine aircraft were called in to drop depth charges over the area, so the enemy could be sure the vessel was for sure out of commission. It was there where Grayback remained undiscovered for nearly a century.

Unexpected discovery within the USS Grayback (SS-208)

USS Stickleback (SS-415) surfacing at sea
The USS Stickleback (SS-415) was the first submarine located by the Lost 52 Project. (Photo Credit: USN / USNI / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

During the Second World War, 52 American submarines were lost, taking the lives of 374 officers and 3,131 sailors. The Lost 52 Project is an initiative dedicated to locating all 52 vessels, to bring closure to the families of those who lost their lives. Using state-of-the-art technology, the team captures images and 3D scans of the wrecks they discover to help document each submarine.

On November 10, 2019, the Lost 52 Project announced it had located the USS Grayback some 50 nautical miles south of Okinawa, roughly 1,400 feet below the surface. Her deck gun was found 400 feet away from the main wreckage. The damage the submarine had sustained appeared consistent with what was listed in the Japanese report. There was severe damage aft of the conning tower, and part of the hull had imploded. As well, the bow had broken off at an angle.

It’s a miracle they even found the wreck, considering the original coordinates translated by the US Navy were 100 nautical miles off, thanks to a clerical error that was off by just one number.

The team set up a dive team to explore the wreckage, but what they found inside overshadowed the celebratory mood around such an incredible discovery. Tim Taylor, one of the team leads, shared how he felt with The New York Times, “We were elated, but it’s also sobering, because we just found 80 men.”

Prayers of family members have finally been answered

USS Grayback (SS-208) memorial on the grounds of the Heslar Naval Armory
USS Grayback (SS-208) memorial at the Heslar Naval Armory in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo Credit: Sheariner / Wikimedia Commons CC BY 2.5)

Gloria Hurney‘s uncle, Raymond Parks, was one of the men lost when the USS Grayback sank. He served as an electrician’s mate, first class. Hurney and countless others had concluded they would never be able to locate the wreck, but the Lost 52 Project proved them otherwise.

More from us: Inside a Submarine: A Glimpse Into the Lives of Those Serving Beneath the Ocean’s Surface

While the discovery of Grayback is bittersweet, it’s also brought closure and peace to the families who waited 75 years to learn where their loved ones were laid to rest.

Elisabeth Edwards

Elisabeth Edwards is a public historian and history content writer. After completing her Master’s in Public History at Western University in Ontario, Canada Elisabeth has shared her passion for history as a researcher, interpreter, and volunteer at local heritage organizations.

She also helps make history fun and accessible with her podcast The Digital Dust Podcast, which covers topics on everything from art history to grad school.

In her spare time, you can find her camping, hiking, and exploring new places. Elisabeth is especially thrilled to share a love of history with readers who enjoy learning something new every day!

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