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

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.

The incredible service of the USS Grayback

The USS Grayback was commissioned on June 30, 1941, as part of the Atlantic Fleet. The Tambor-class vessel was the first in the Navy to be named for a species of lake herring. During the Second World War, she was 20th in the total tonnage sunk by US submarines, taking down 14 enemy ships (63,835 tons).

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

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

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

Grayback garnered an impressive number of kills, but her 10th patrol was her most successful – and also her last.

The USS Grayback‘s final mission was her most successful

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

Nakajima B5N2 in flight
Japanese Nakajima B5N2 torpedo bomber, similar to the one used to attack the USS Grayback (SS-208), 1943. (Photo Credit: US Naval History and Heritage Command / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

Grayback was supposed to arrive at Midway 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. The submarine used her last two torpedos to sink the Japanese cargo ship Ceylon Maru on February 27, but was spotted by a Nakajima B5N torpedo bomber and hit with a 500-pound bomb. Grayback sank to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean, where she remained undiscovered for nearly a century.

The unexpected discovery within the USS Grayback

During the Second World War, 52 US 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 incredible 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 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.”

The prayers of families have finally been answered

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.

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

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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