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Closure after 75 years

Marshall woman learned of brother’s fate after the sunken USS Grayback was discovered in 2019

By Scott Thoma

Elaine Johnson clutches the MIA flag she used to hang outside her home in Marshall as she waited to hear what happened to her brother. Photo by Scott Thoma

Elaine Johnson of Marshall had to wait 75 years to find out what happened to her brother after he and 79 other crew members aboard the USS Grayback submarine were declared missing in 1944.

Elaine always held out hope that her brother, Earl Halvorson, was still alive.

“My mother (Amelia Halvorson) and I never believed he was dead,” Johnson said. “We wouldn’t accept that. We were afraid he was captured by the Russians.”

Elaine’s father, Johnnie, passed away in 1932, leaving Amelia to receive the news of their son missing in action via a telegram on April 8, 1944. The family was living on a farm outside of Minneota at the time.

After the initial telegram sent from the U.S. Navy, a second Western Union telegram arrived on Feb. 19, 1946 from Admiral A.S. Carpenter of the Ninth Naval District in Great Lake, Ill., regretfully informing the family that Earl and the others aboard the USS Grayback were presumed dead.

“The grief my mother went through for the rest of her life was awful,” Elaine said. “She was just devastated. And it made it hard on all of us to see her that way.”

The current grave marker for Earl Halvorson will soon be replaced by one with a corrected date of death. Photo by Scott Thoma

Elaine was one of five children. All five siblings’ names began with the letter “E” -- Elvira, Earl, Ervin, Elaine and Eunice. After Earl went missing, Ervin joined the U.S. Navy with the sole purpose of trying to find him.

Elaine's husband, Howard, passed away in 2010. They had four children together; Thomas, Deborah, Robert and John.

It wasn’t until a search team discovered the wreckage of the Grayback in 1,400 feet of water off the coast of Japan in 2019 that Earl was officially declared dead.

Although Elaine, 92, the surviving sibling, got the closure she was hoping for, the news was still painful after all those years.

“When they found the Grayback, I don’t know if I teared up more because it was found or because of mom,” said Elaine’s daughter, Deb Anderson.

Earl Halvorson’s U.S. Navy photo in 1944. Contributed photo

The USS Grayback, ranked as one of the most successful U.S. submarines in World War II, was discovered by explorer Tim Taylor and his Lost 52 Project team off the coast of Okinawa on June 5, 2019. The discovery was not made public until Nov. 11 of that year to allow the Project 52 team to notify as many of the 80 families as possible. The Lost 52 was given the name because 52 submarines went missing in WWII. To date, 11 of the submarines have been found.

The Grayback sailed out of Pearl Harbor in January of 1944 and headed for the South China Sea on its 10th patrol. On Feb. 19, the Grayback radioed that she had sunk two enemy cargo ships and damaged two others. Six days after that, the Grayback reported sinking a tanker and severely damaging another.

With only two torpedoes remaining in her arsenal, the Grayback was ordered to return home and expected to reach Midway on March 7.

According to Japanese records, the Grayback used its final two torpedoes to sink a freighter and was then spotted recharging on the surface in the East China Sea by a Japanese bomber pilot, who then dropped a 500-pound bomb on the Grayback’s conning tower. The submarined exploded and sank immediately.

The reason the Grayback wasn’t discovered until 75 years after it sunk was because an error had been made by the U.S. Navy in translating coordinates of Japanese military documents. An amateur Japanese researcher discovered the error in 2018.

Project 52 crew members utilized drone cameras to read the name of the USS Grayback on a plaque affixed to positively identify the sunken submarine.

Elaine Johnson of Marshall looks over the scrapbook she has put together on her brother’s disappearance and the eventual discovery two years ago of the USS Grayback he was aboard. Photo by Scott Thoma

The Halvorson family initially held a memorial service on Sept. 10, 1946 after receiving the telegram that Earl Eugene Halvorson, Seaman First Class, was presumed dead. The military grave marker placed in Hemnes Cemetery south of Minneota listed his death as Jan. 12, 1946. But new information revealed that the submarine was sunk on Feb. 27, 1944.

“It’s very easy for me to cry now,” Elaine, her voice trembling as she spoke. “I find a little comfort knowing he wasn’t alone when he died. But it’s still hard to deal with. I was 13 years old when Earl went off to war in 1942. He was only 17 years old ... and we never saw him again.”

Upon receiving the updated information, Elaine and her children started the process of trying to obtain a new stone marker with the correct date of Earl’s death. It’s a grueling process that comes with a lot of red tape, however.

With the help of Representative Michelle Fischbach, the family recently received word from the Department of Veterans Affairs, National Cemetery Association in Washington, D.C. that a new military gravestone with the corrected date will arrive sometime in October.

Once the new marker is received and the old one returned to the Lyon County Virginia, the family will plan a new memorial service. Fischbach has notified the family that she would like to be in attendance for the memorial service.

The Purple Heart Earl’s family received is now proudly displayed on a wall at his nephew Tom’s home in Georgia.

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