The mystery of the USS Grayback: How a mistranslation kept the Navy from finding the submarine's final resting place for 75 years

USS Grayback (SS-208), which was sunk by Japanese bombing in 1944, was eventually tracked 100 miles from the area where it was originally thought to have drowned.


                            The mystery of the USS Grayback: How a mistranslation kept the Navy from finding the submarine's final resting place for 75 years

History never ceases to surprise. On January 28, 1944, when the Second World War was raging in the Pacific, the USS Grayback (SS-208) departed Pearl Harbor for its 10th combat patrol. One of the most successful American submarines, the Grayback never returned and the US Navy listed the vessel as missing and presumed it was lost. Nearly 75 years later it looks like the lost submarine has been located, and now hopefully the mystery of its disappearance can be cracked.

Once the war ended, the Navy tried to piece together the history of all 52 submarines that it lost and the information, which came out in 1949, gave approximate locations where each of the vessels had gone off tracking. The Grayback, which had a successful last patrol, was thought to have sunk in the open ocean around 100 miles east-southeast of Okinawa, Japan.

But the effort to track down the lost submarine failed as the Navy banked on translations of Japanese war records that were far from perfect. In fact, just one erroneous digit in the longitude for the spot where Grayback was believed to have disappeared led the entire tracking operation in the wrong direction.

An incorrect longitude figure misled the discovery mission

Last Sunday, November 10, undersea explorer Tim Taylor and his associates at the Lost 52 Project announced that they had succeeded in locating the submarine on June 5 and it was lying under more than 1,400 feet underwater off Okinawa. In 2018, Japanese researcher Yukata Iwasaki found that the Navy had erred in translating Japanese war records that had put up details about the likely spot where the Grayback met its fate. For over seven decades, the Navy’s historical records had followed the incorrect longitude figure to track the submarine’s last position.

A fresh initiative to track Grayback was launched with the corrected information and newly-found Japanaese mission logs that were translated and the main focus was on the southwest of Okinawa. With autonomous underwater and remotely operated vehicles and advanced imaging technology, the explorers eventually found the submarine located about 100 miles away from the place where it was thought to have sunk.

Robert S Neyland, the head of the Naval History and Heritage Command's Underwater Archaeology Branch, officially confirmed the discovery in a news release. "The confirmation of the site as a US Navy sunken military craft ensures it is protected from disturbance, safeguarding the final resting place of our sailors," he said in his statement.

The families of the 80 soldiers of the submarine that had succeeded in sinking 14 ships during the war were reportedly informed about the new discovery. The vessel had also received two Navy Unit Commendations and eight battle stars.

How the tracking process started?

In 2018, Iwasaki was asked to go through wartime records of the Imperial Japanese Navy base at Sasebo, Nagasaki. The documents included daily reports received by radio from the naval air base at Naha, Okinawa. The entry made on February 27, 1944, a month after Grayback left US shores, looked promising. It said that a Nakajima B5N carrier-based bomber of the Imperial Japanese Navy had dropped a bomb weighing 500 pounds on a surfaced submarine and it exploded and sank immediately and there were no survivors.

“In that radio record, there is a longitude and a latitude of the attack, very clearly,” Iwasaki was quoted as saying by the New York Times. However, the information did not match what was in the 1949 Navy history that helped the fresh hunt for the drowned submarine succeed.

A systems engineer based in Kobe, Japan, Iwasaki was always interested in Japanese merchant ships that operated during the Second World War, four-fifths of which were sunk. Unearthing the history of those ships meant he came across records on submarines often. “For me, finding US submarines is part of my activity to introduce the tragic story of war,” he said.

Iwasaki’s work soon brought him in contact with Taylor, another passionate man who had been hunting the remains of American submarines lost during the Second World War. In 2010, he found his first submarine, USS R-12 and then set up the Lost 52 Project to track down the remaining 51 with the help of technology that came into use only in the last decade-and-a-half.

According to Taylor, 47 of the 52 lost submarines were considered discoverable while it was difficult to find the remaining five because of difficult locations.

Taylor met Don Walsh, the 88-year-old former Navy submariner who had reached the deepest point below the oceans in 1960 when he was a lieutenant. He gave Taylor a copy of the 1949 Navy history 'US Submarine Losses, World War II'. With that book and Iwasaki’s findings, Taylor and his team decided to track down Grayback.

When they reached Japanese waters in June this year there were mechanical and electrical problems. Yet, the mission went on and a heavy underwater vehicle was deployed to bring information up from below the water. It worked overtime as technicians above water kept analysing the data it collected to get a coherent image. It was on the penultimate day of the mission that the vehicle developed a snag.

As the team was about to head home, Taylor himself started reviewing the images that the vehicle brought back and sensed something odd, so he decided to send another vehicle -- a manually operated one -- below the water (it was over 1,400 feet deep there) and the high-definition cameras soon established that the Grayback was lying down there with its gun deck falling some 400 feet away, the Times report added. It got disconnected from the vessel because of the explosion.

After 75 years of lying under the sea, the Grayback has finally been been found, and the families of the sailors can finally get the closure they have yearned for for so many decades.

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