On February 27, 1944 the USS Grayback was returning to Pearl Harbor after a successful patrol in the East China Sea when a Japanese bomber attacked. The submarine was destroyed and the 80 sailors on board all lost their lives. After the war, the Navy used Japanese records in an attempt to locate the missing vessel, but their efforts were unsuccessful.
The final resting place of the Grayback remained a mystery until earlier this month when the research group the Lost-52 Project announced they had found the wreckage 50 miles south of Okinawa, Japan. According to The Washington Post, the submarine was not found earlier because the original translation of the Japanese Navy combat report was off by one digit — a difference of 100 miles.
One of the sailors lost aboard the Grayback was Chief Motor Machinist’s Mate Lee Carroll Stanford. Stanford was born and raised in Provence, a small community south of Dickson, and his family resides in the area to this day. His great nephew, Robert Hunter, shared the story of his “Uncle Tad.”
“There were 10 siblings in the family, three boys and seven girls,” Hunter said. “All of them were very good people, very well-spoken people. Country people that grew up picking cotton and knew the value of hard work.”
Hunter said all three of the Stanford boys were a part of the World War II effort. The oldest son, Neville, worked in a munitions factory. The second brother, Tony, was captured by the Japanese in 1942, survived the Bataan Death March, and was a prisoner of war until 1945. Tad was the youngest son.
“Their parents were Robert Lee Stanford and Betty Bruce Stanford, and we all called her Big Momma,” Hunter said. “They were just good patriotic people who sent their sons off to do military duty. Back then, patriotism was at its peak.”
While Hunter is unsure of exactly when Stanford joined the service, he knows he was in the Navy by at least 1938 because of a letter he sent back home.
“Evidently he joined the Navy sometime before 1938 because we got a Christmas card from when he was on the USS Holland going through the Panama Canal,” Hunter said. “Later he was assigned to a sub called the USS Amberjack, and he went out on a couple patrols with it before he was transferred to the Grayback in April of 1943.”
The USS Amberjack was sunk shortly after Stanford transferred, and Hunter said the family feels like he was destined to go down at sea. Everything went according to plan on his first three patrols on the Grayback, but during his fourth, Stanford met up with his fate.
“For some reason on their way back to Pearl Harbor, they were on the surface during the daytime,” Hunter said. “That could have meant they were charging their batteries because they had to come to the surface to charge their batteries. Most of the time during the day they would run submerged, and at night they would come to the surface. But for some reason they were on the surface during the daytime right off the coast of Okinawa, and, according to Japanese records, a bomber from a carrier plane came at them out of nowhere. Chances are the plane saw them, dropped a 500 pound bomb and it went down immediately.”
Hunter said the family did not know any of this until well after the war was over.
“My granny’s family got a notice that said that Tad’s vessel was overdue, presumed lost.” Hunter said. “That’s all the closure the family ever had for years. ‘Overdue, presumed lost.’ Until the military found the records from the Japanese, they didn’t really know what happened at all.”
Hunter’s grandmother was Fern (Stanford) Worley, Tad’s sister. He said while she enjoyed telling stories about the family and Tad while they were growing up, she did not like to talk much about losing her brother. However, she said he was a very good person and a sweet young man. The family was devastated to lose him.
“The 10 siblings are all gone now,” Hunter said. “My granny was the last one to pass. I’m not even sure how many of them knew that it was hit by a bomb. It’s kind of a shame that they didn’t get that closure.”
However, Hunter and his siblings, along with numerous cousins all over the country, do have closure about their uncle’s fate.
“Yes, he did did die, and now we know where his final resting place is. It was one of those things in our family that was open ended, and now it’s closed. Now we know.” Hunter said. “I wish that Granny and all the siblings and Big Momma would have known where it went down, and that he probably died the moment the bomb hit. This would have given them closure, too, but I believe they know now.”
Hunter said the wreckage of USS Grayback along with the remains of the 80 sailors who were aboard the submarine when it went down will stay where it is, off the coast of Okinawa, Japan. This is known as being on “eternal patrol.”