On Saturday, Feb. 26, 1944, a Japanese war plane took off from an air base in Okinawa, Japan, with a belly full of bombs. Its target was an American submarine that had surfaced miles off the coast.
The plane’s payload found its target, a direct hit. The sub was heavily damaged. It managed to stay afloat for a day or so longer, but eventually the USS Grayback sank to the bottom of the ocean, taking with it its crew to a watery grave. A circling Japanese pilot noted the map coordinates of the attack, looked around for any survivors, but only saw bubbles and an oil slick. The sea swallowed everything.
Seventy-nine souls were on board that day, including Isauro Victor (“Vic”) Silveira, a 1941 Lodi High School graduate and Acampo resident. He was just 21 years old.
All aboard perished.
The sub set sail from Pearl Harbor on Jan. 28, 1944 for the East China Sea. It was expected at Midway on March 7, but never arrived. It was reported lost on March 30, 1944. The Grayback was one of 52 submarines reported missing from World War II.
Grieving families of those lost on the Grayback exchanged photos of their loved ones with each other. It was their way to begin the healing process. Each family was now tragically related in sorrow and loss.
The exact whereabouts of the lost ship has been a secret known only to the sea for the past 75 years. It has always been known that the sub was at the bottom of the ocean somewhere off the shores of Okinawa, but repeated searches had always turned up nothing.
That all changed on June 5 when a team of explorers from the Lost 52 Project found the ship’s barnacle-encrusted remains under 1,400 feet of water, miles from where previous searches had been conducted.
Discovery of the lost sub made national news. When Julie Jensen of Lodi saw it in the New York Times—on Veteran’s Day — she was shocked. “My heart just sunk,” she says.
Vic Silveira was her uncle, the kin she’d always heard about but never knew. Now, suddenly, her relative who died a generation earlier was thrust to the forefront in her life.
“It’s all personal now,” she says, and she admits the news made her “sad for a couple days.”
A new search for the boat was launched after an error was found in the translation of the longitude of where the Grayback sank. “With the new data and newly discovered Japanese mission logs, the searchers were able to refocus their efforts and, using groundbreaking robotics and technology, found the dilapidated sub 100 miles from the area recorded in the original historical records,” according to Internet sources.
Even though Vic, the brother of Julie’s mother, had died before she was born, she and the rest of her family were well aware of his life and death at sea. “I’d heard all the stories,” she said of her uncle. He was almost a mythical figure, someone to whom she was related but had never met. She had only seen pictures and heard tales about him from her mom and other family members.
Julie, an elementary school teacher, had always been told that Vic had a “pleasing personality” and was handsome. “The girls were all over him,” she remembers people saying.
As fate would have it, her own son would marry an Okinawan. “Our grandchildren are dual citizens (and) they are fluent Japanese speakers,” Julie says proudly. “My daughter-in-law lost many relatives in the fighting, including an uncle conscripted at the age of twelve. We find it crazy that we are now family.”
Before the discovery was made, Julie traveled to Okinawa to visit family. She remembers standing on the shoreline looking out into the expanse of water, saying to herself, “Vic, where are you?” She even went by the Kadena air base where the Japanese fighter plane that killed her uncle likely took off. The base is now an American hub of airpower in the Pacific.
The Silveira clan were dairy farmers and lived on Acampo Road. The old homestead is still standing, Julie says. Vic in all likelihood worked on the family farm.
The Silveira family has lived in America, most of it in the Lodi area, for 100 years. Josephina Pereira (Americanized to Josephine Perry at Ellis Island) and Isauro Viera da Silveira immigrated to America in 1911. The pair met and fell in love, marrying in 1916. They had eight children; three daughters and five sons, including Vic. Josephina was quoted as saying in her native accent, “Every time your father hang his pants on the bed, I have another baby.”
Vic was born April 3, 1922. His sister Josie married Clayton Knittel. They had three children together, including Julie and her two brothers.
Vic and his younger brother, Julie’s uncle Fred, enlisted together. “They were two peas in a pod growing up,” she says. “They both joined the navy and intended to serve in the same unit together, but the military would not allow this. Early in 1942 the five Sullivan brothers all died on the same ship, so after that siblings were not allowed to serve in the same unit together. At the time, both brothers were upset they could not spend the war together, but after Vic died, the entire family was grateful that they did not lose two sons on that sub,” Julie says.
All of Vic Silveira’s immediate family are now deceased, including his parents and seven siblings. Only Julie’s dad Clay, who’s in his 90s, and relatives from later generations remain today.
Julie has also become the unofficial archivist of the Silveira family and keeper of Vic’s memorabilia. When her mother died, she inherited all of Vic’s service medals and official documents, including his Lodi High School diploma.
Among the artifacts she keeps in a binder are the last two letters Vic sent home. One was written to Josie, Julie’s mom, Vic’s sister. It was dated Jan. 4, 1944, less than two months before he died. He mentions how delighted he was to receive several letters at once, writing, “It was really something to get all that mail at once. I just didn’t know where to start.”
In his letter he also marveled at how the Galt football team was doing that year. “They sure must have a good team this year to beat big schools like Lodi and Sacramento.” He also admired the “write up” one of the players received, remarking, “That’s the kind of write up I always hoped I would get in high school.”
He seemed a little envious of other men who’d managed to get leave during the holidays. “I’m telling you I don’t see how guys can be so lucky. … You just wait until I get my leave one of these days. I’m telling you (nothing’s) going to be (too) good for me. I’m really going to throw me a time,” he writes.
Vic was also a generous guy. In the last letter to his dad, he wrote, “Dear Pop, I sure hope you’re all getting along swell. … I’m sending you one-thousand dollars in the letter. Here’s what I want you to do with it. Take $250 out of it, and keep $50 for yourself and $50 for Ma also. Then give each of the kids $25 (apiece). … Put the $750 in the bank. Write soon, won’t you?”
There would be no more letters sent home.
Vic Silveira is memorialized at Tablets of the Missing, Honolulu Memorial in Hawaii, an American Battle Monuments Commission location. He was awarded the Purple Heart, Combat Action Ribbon, World War II Victory Medal, American Campaign Medal, Distinguished Unit Citation, Good Conduct Medal, Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal, and Navy Expeditionary Medal. Most of Vic’s medals were awarded posthumously and are now in Julie’s care.
In May, 1946 Vic’s mother Josephine received a notice of settlement from the Veterans Administrations informing her that she was a beneficiary of insurance in the amount of $9,848, which was granted to Isauro Victor Silveira by the United States under the National Service Life Insurance Act. She was to begin receiving monthly payments of $56.72 for life, “with 120 monthly installments certain.”
Some 16,000 submariners served during WWII, of whom 375 officers and 3,131 enlisted men were killed, according to Wikipedia. There were also other men from California aboard the Grayback when it went down, including three from San Francisco, one from Berkeley, one from Roseville, another from Vallejo, one from Los Angeles, and one from Bellflower. Jack Forward was also assigned to the ship, but was killed separately in a plane crash and was not aboard at the time. He lived in Berkeley, but was born in Stockton.
While the USS Grayback has now been found, dozens of other WWII submarines still remain lost at sea. No plans to exhume the Grayback or its crew have been announced. But now that its location is known, it’s believed the site may be designated as a protected area, off-limits to those who would seek to disturb its hallowed waters.
Steve is a former newspaper publisher and lifelong Lodian whose column appears most Tuesdays in the News-Sentinel. Write to Steve at email@example.com.