Due to its unprecedented scale, political context, and destructive aftermath, World War II may well be the most significant period in modern history. And any argument making that assertion need only examine how much change it influenced throughout the world, even 70 years after it ended.
But while these after-effects are countless, some never even learned what happened to those fallen soldiers and sailors. That’s what makes one unlikely discovery of the USS Grayback so vitally important, and the most unbelievable part of it is that it would never have happened if someone didn’t notice one tiny error.
On January 28, 1944, the USS Grayback went on patrol.
As John Ismay wrote for The New York Times, the USS Grayback submarine had already undergone nine other combat patrols.
By the time it departed from Pearl Harbor, it was considered one of the U.S. Navy’s most successful subs during World War II.
And that was reflected by how decorated its commander was.
Commander John A. Moore had assumed control of the submarine before its last three patrols.
And by the time the vessel set out for its final voyage, he had already been awarded two Navy Crosses like the one shown here.
The USS Grayback‘s reputation was well-earned.
Commander Moore would eventually be honored with a third, posthumous Navy Cross for his crew’s final achievements.
Because on its tenth patrol alone, the submarine singlehandedly sunk enough Japanese warships to create 21,594 tons of rubble at the bottom of the ocean.
Based on its war record, that wasn’t unusual for the submarine.
In the time it was active, the USS Grayback was responsible for sinking over a dozen Japanese ships.
But its crews’ fortunes would reverse in the worst way possible as the submarine approached Okinawa, Japan.
At the time, Navy leaders didn’t know what had happened.
According to Ismay, commanders at Pearl Harbor waited until late March for the USS Grayback to return, at which point it was already more than three weeks overdue.
By then, the Navy saw fit to list the vessel as missing and presumed lost.
In such cases, the Navy treats lost subs as “still on patrol.”
Once the war ended, the Navy worked to piece together a comprehensive history of what befell the 52 American submarines that received the designation of “still on patrol.”
By 1949, their findings were released and provided approximate locations where each submarine met its end.
And as far as the Navy knew, the USS Grayback was no exception.
As far as they could glean from Japanese war records at the time, the submarine went down about 100 miles southeast of Okinawa.
But unbeknownst to anyone, this location was based on a translation error.
The answer to this 75-year mystery came from an unlikely source.
Since he was a teenager, a systems engineer, Yutaka Iwasaki, has pursued an interest in uncovering the histories of Japanese merchant ships.
In his findings, Iwasaki found that four-fifths of old merchant ships were destroyed during the war. Since submarines were a frequent culprit of the ships’ sinkings, Iwasaki also started studying their records.
This work brought him to the attention of an undersea explorer.
That explorer’s name is Tim Taylor and at his request, Iwasaki looked into the fate of the Grayback.
And in 2018, he discovered that his answer would come from a radio report received at the naval air base at Naha, Okinawa on February 27, 1944.
The report seemed to match the USS Grayback‘s mission.
Iwasaki learned that a Nakajima B5N bomber dropped a 500-pound shell on the surfaced submarine, which caused an explosion that destroyed the Grayback and left no survivors.
But the clear longitude and latitude readings Iwasaki heard from that report didn’t match the U.S. Navy’s 1949 records.
In fact, they were at least 100 miles off from the real coordinates.
Yet as Taylor would later tell The Washington Post, that vast difference between the estimate and the actual location only came from one incorrect digit being logged during translation.
Even with the error, it gave Taylor and his team the information they needed to finally uncover the wreck of the USS Grayback.
For over a decade, Taylor has worked to find lost submarines.
He discovered his first U.S. submarine in 2010, which had sunk in Florida during a 1943 training exercise. Since then, he and his wife, Christine Dennison, have established the Lost 52 Project, named for the number of American submarines lost during World War II.
Despite the name, just 47 of those 52 submarines are considered discoverable. That’s because the others either sunk in unknown locations or have since run aground.
The aforementioned 1949 records partially guide his work.
Taylor personally received a copy of the book those records are compiled in from a former Navy submariner named Don Walsh.
In 1960, Walsh was part of the crew who made a historic voyage into the Mariana Trench, the deepest point in any of the world’s oceans.
With that project’s resources, Taylor’s team started searching.
When the team reached the relevant area off the coast of Okinawa in June 2019, they discovered how difficult this task would be.
As Taylor told The New York Times, “When you’re on these sites, you feel like you’re one breakdown away from having to go home. So every day is precious.”
And for the Lost 52 Project team, those days were running out.
Their technique in uncovering the lost vessel involved using an unmanned underwater vehicle similar to a drone to dive to a few hundred feet above the sea bed. There, it would spend the next 24 hours collecting sonar data within about 10 square nautical miles of its location.
When the drone returned to the ship Taylor’s team was on, they would then download its data in the interest of stitching together one all-encompassing image.
The area the team was searching was about 1,400 feet deep.
However, that fact didn’t complicate the search as much as a malfunction that befell their drone about eight hours into its data-gathering session on the second-last day of the team’s mission.
Although the Lost 52 Project was able to recover the drone, they weren’t hopeful about the data on it.
The crew also didn’t think it was likely they could repair the drone.
For these reasons, Taylor said that about half of his crew started preparing their ship to return to port after the drone was recovered.
As far as they knew, the dreaded breakdown that threatened to send them home empty-handed had occurred, and the mission was over.
However, Taylor himself wasn’t so quick to give up.
When Taylor reviewed the images the drone had managed to capture, he spotted two unidentified objects resting on the sea floor.
And while it was hard to tell what they were from a sonar image, they didn’t seem to belong in their surroundings.
While the team’s drone was damaged, they weren’t out of options.
While the drone was out of commission, the team had another unmanned vehicle they could send down into the depths to uncover what Taylor saw.
Unlike the drone, the team could steer this vessel manually through remote controls and was equipped with high-definition cameras to get a clearer look at the scene.
The vehicle’s journey took hours, but it was worth the wait.
Taking its time to find the exact location of the anomaly, the vehicle’s cameras revealed that Taylor had barely managed to catch sight of the USS Grayback.
And as he would soon discover, one of the anomalies he saw on the ocean floor was actually the submarine’s hull.
Shortly after, he discovered what the other suspicious object was.
The other object was about 400 feet away from the hull and turned out to be the Grayback’s deck gun.
Judging by the distance and the manner in which the USS Grayback sank, it was clear that the deck gun had been blown off when the submarine was shelled.
Although this was a lucky discovery, it was also a solemn one.
It was a sad discovery because the team was well aware of the implications behind what they had found.
As Taylor put it to The New York Times, “We were elated, but it’s also sobering because we just found 80 men.”
So once their find was confirmed, the team paid their respects.
On the following day, the Lost 52 Project team got together and held a ceremony in remembrance of the USS Grayback‘s lost crew.
There, each of their names was read out one by one.
Similar respect will also be paid to the site of the discovery.
That sentiment was reflected in a statement obtained by USA Today from Robert S. Neyland, the leader of the Naval History and Heritage Command’s Underwater Archaeology Branch.
In his words, “The confirmation of the site as a U.S. Navy sunken military craft ensures it is protected from disturbance, safeguarding the final resting place of our sailors.”
And for the sailors’ families, a painful mystery is finally solved.
One of the men aboard was named John Patrick King, and he was the namesake of his nephew John Bihn, who was born three years after the sinking of the USS Grayback.
And Bihn grew up knowing very well who King was as a photo of the submarine he served on was prominently displayed in his maternal grandmother’s home.
That photo’s frame also included King’s Purple Heart and citation.
But while Bihn grew up knowing King was a war hero, it was difficult to gain much information about his passing because his family considered it too sad to talk about.
As he told The New York Times, “My mother would cry very often if you spoke to her about it.”
Since King was lost at sea, he was memorialized by his parents.
Specifically, they had an inscription engraved on their own headstone to read, “John Patrick King ‘Lost in Action.'”
With that in mind, Bihn received the last message he ever expected to hear when his sister texted him about the discovery. As he put it, “I was dumbfounded. I just could not believe it.”
Bihn would be granted access to the footage.
And when he reviewed what the Lost 52 Project team had uncovered, his thoughts quickly turned to the other family members he had lost.
He said, “I wish my parents were alive to see this because it would certainly make them very happy.”
Bihn was also stunned by how clearly the sub’s remains came in.
In particular, he noted how plainly the plaque on the submarine’s conning tower still read, “USS Grayback.”
As he said, “It’s like someone wiped it clean. It’s like it wanted to be found.”
As for Taylor, he and his team are still searching as hard as ever.
After all, there are still well over 40 American submarines waiting to be found in the world’s oceans.
And the USS Grayback was the first of many that the Last 52 Project is specifically hunting for in Japanese waters.