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‘His legacy lives on’

Photo by Deb Gau Elaine Johnson, 92, was just 13 years old when her brother, Earl Halvorson, left home to join the Navy in World War II. The submarine Earl served on, the U.S.S. Grayback, went missing in 1944 and was not found until 2019. For 75 years, Johnson said her family kept up hope Earl would be found someday.

MARSHALL — When news broke that a U.S. submarine missing since 1944 had been found off the coast of Japan, it gave the family of Minneota native Earl Halvorson an answer they had waited decades for.

Now, family members say they hope to bring closure to Earl’s story with a new memorial at Hemnes Lutheran Cemetery near Minneota.

“Everyone knows where he is now. His legacy lives on, but his story is done,” said Thomas Johnson, Halvorson’s nephew.

On Friday, military honors will be held for Halvorson and a new headstone with his date of death will be placed at the cemetery.

Seaman 1st Class Earl Halvorson was one of 80 crew members reported missing when the U.S.S. Grayback disappeared in the East China Sea during World War II. In 2019, the Grayback was found by the Lost 52 Project, an organization dedicated to finding missing WWII submarines.

Learning that the Grayback was found stirred up a lot of emotions, said Halvorson’s sister Elaine Johnson of Marshall.

“For 75 years he’s missing, and all of a sudden he’s found,” she said. “It was a great shock.”

Elaine Johnson, her son Thomas, and daughter, Deb Anderson, shared stories about Earl on Monday. Earl volunteered to join the Navy not long after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Elaine was 13 when Earl left for boot camp.

“I remember him going,” she said. While Elaine was still in bed that morning, she heard her mother, Amelia Halvorson, talking with Earl.

“She asked if she could walk with him to the bus station. He said ‘No, I don’t want anyone crying,’ “ Johnson said.

She said it was the last time her mother saw Earl.

After enlisting in the Navy, Halvorson volunteered to join the Submarine Service. The sub he served on, the Grayback, was credited with sinking a total of 19 enemy vessels. But the Grayback never returned from its last mission in 1944.

The Grayback’s crew, including Earl, were reported missing. By 1946, they were presumed dead.

“The family kept hope that he would be found someday,” Thomas Johnson said.

Elaine Johnson said Earl’s disappearance was especially hard for her mother. Because Earl was just 17 when he joined the Navy, “She had to sign the (enlistment) papers.”

Amelia Halvorson worked to get a memorial headstone for Earl placed at the Hemnes cemetery. She also corresponded with families of other Grayback crew members, and kept a photo album with pictures of the missing men.

Earl’s brother, Ervin, later joined the Navy in hopes of finding Earl, Elaine said. For years, Elaine also flew the POW/MIA flag for Earl on holidays.

“Earl has been a big part of our family, for all of us,” Thomas Johnson said.

One thing that stood out to Thomas was how Earl volunteered for the Navy instead of being drafted. Earl went through a lot of hardship when he was growing up.

“And yet, this kid had all this patriotism. He loved his country,” Johnson said.

After learning that the Grayback had been found, members of Earl’s family have worked to get an updated headstone for him. Elaine and Deb Anderson contacted the Navy and worked with the regional Gold Star Coordinator, as well as the Lyon County Veterans Services Office and U.S. Rep. Michelle Fischbach’s office, to get a replacement stone. Then, they worked with Hamilton Funeral Home in Marshall to actually receive the headstone.

“We needed someplace to deliver it,” Anderson said.

“It had to be handled officially, like any other tombstone,” Thomas Johnson said.

Halvorson’s family have invited Fischbach and local officials, including the mayors of Minneota and Marshall, to attend the memorial service Friday morning. They also plan to read a poem Amelia Halvorson wrote in memory of Earl.

Although he has been gone more than 75 years, Earl Halvorson was never forgotten. It will be good to be able to give Earl his final honors, Thomas Johnson said.

“I think it will be closure for Mom,” he said.

Editor’s Note: The following is the full obituary submitted by Earl Halvorson’s family through Hamilton Funeral Home

Seaman First Class

Earl Eugene Halvorson USN

Oct. 10, 1924-Feb. 27, 1944

The family of Seaman First Class Earl Eugene Halvorson USN, 19, would like to invite the public to a memorial at 10:30 a.m. on Friday at Hemnes Lutheran Cemetery near Minneota, where they will place a new memorial honoring the day that he gave his life in the service of his country. A graveside service will follow military honors. In lieu of flowers or a memorial gift, please give your support to our active-duty service members, veterans, and veteran’s organizations.

Earl died on Feb. 27, 1944, along with 79 other seamen onboard the submarine USS Grayback (SS 208), which was lost to enemy action during World War II. Although we are not able to bring his remains home, Earl’s final resting place is no longer known only to God.

He was born Oct. 10, 1924, to Johnnie Andrew Halvorson and Amelia Emma (Possail) Halvorson on his family’s farm in Nordland Township, Lyon County, Minnesota. He lived on their farm until his Father’s death in December 1932, when his mother, 3 sisters and younger brother moved to Minneota, MN. Earl was confirmed at Hope Lutheran Church and attended Minneota public schools until the tenth grade. Though he was a serious young man who had been shouldered with the responsibility of serving as a father-figure to his younger siblings during the Great Depression, Earl had a playful streak, having been instrumental in placing the outhouse on top of the Minneota school.

In June 1940, his family moved to Marshall where he attended Marshall High School. Earl also worked at Jefferson’s Dairy in the ice cream department, alongside an older colleague named Paul — this company would eventually become the Schwan’s Food Company.

On Dec. 20, 1941, thirteen days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Earl enlisted in the US Navy. Only 17, his mother Amelia reluctantly agreed to sign his enlistment papers and he reported to Naval Station Great Lakes on Dec. 31 for boot camp. After a call by President Roosevelt for volunteers to enter the Submarine Service, Earl volunteered and was transferred to Pearl Harbor. He scored at the top of his class in mine school and was ordered to report to active duty as a torpedoman on the USS Grayback. He served on her 7th, 8th, 9th, and her eternal war patrols.

On Jan. 28, 1944, the Grayback sailed from Pearl Harbor to Midway Island, her final stop before leaving on her 10th war patrol. Though her fate would be death in the depths of the East China Sea, her officers and her crew made a name for themselves, courageously battling the enemy. Between 1942 and 1944 the Grayback was credited with 19 enemy vessels sunk, including a submarine and a destroyer. On one of her patrols, the pharmacists mate performed an emergency appendectomy, and she took part in island rescues and America’s first wolf-pack patrol. On February 25th Commander Johnny Moore of the Grayback radioed that that they sunk or damaged 4 more enemy ships, including the largest of her career the massive 10,033-ton Nampo Maru, and had only 2 torpedoes remaining — one in the bow and one in the stern. With only one torpedo at both ends of the boat, Vice Admiral Lockwood (back at Pearl Harbor) knew it would be difficult to stage another successful attack and ordered her home. Lockwood would never receive radio confirmation from the boat’s commander, but Moore must have received the order as he used at least one if not both of his remaining torpedoes enroute to Pearl Harbor. According to Japanese records the Grayback sank its last enemy ship on February 26th, the freighter Ceylon Maru, adding a final 4,905 tons to her score. The Grayback was due back in Pearl by the 7th of March and Lockwood began to worry soon thereafter about the fate of her officers and crew. There had been no further word from her Commander and her fate was unknown by the US Navy – the Grayback had mysteriously disappeared.

On April 8, Earl’s mother received a telegram stating “The Navy Department deeply regrets to inform you that your son Earl Eugene Halvorson Seaman First Class USN is missing following action in the performance of his duty and in the service of his country. The Department appreciates your great anxiety but details now not available and delay in receipt thereof must necessarily be expected. To prevent possible aid to our enemies please do not divulge the name of his ship or station”.

Though no additional details were available to the families of the missing officers and crew, Pearl Harbor Lt. Commander Edgar MacGregor III, speculated to his superiors that having run out of torpedoes, Moore, an advocate of highly unorthodox surface attack tactics, may have put his crew at unnecessary risk and lost his boat fighting the enemy with the deck gun. While his theory would eventually prove untrue, it tarnished the reputation of both Moore and his boat, and it would take another 75 years to unravel the true fate and final resting place of the Grayback and her 80 souls.

After the allies arrived in Japan in 1945, they repatriated 168 survivors from previously lost US submarines. While the families of the Grayback’s officers and crew held out hope, having heard stories of captured US submariners being held in Japan, sadly, none were from the Grayback. She became one of 37 US submarines lost with all hands. Though it seemed as if no one remained alive to tell the story of her fate, a promising lead was discovered among captured Japanese documents. A radio report dated Feb. 27, 1944, was made by a pilot from the aircraft carrier Nakajima Kate that he had dropped two, 250-kg bombs on a surfaced American submarine in the East China Sea, the Grayback’s last reported position. The submarine exploded and sank; there were no survivors. Although no reference was made in the pilots report to the boat’s number and the Grayback’s number, SS 208, was clearly painted in white on the side of the submarines conning tower, Admiral James Forrestal felt justified that with the totality of information at his disposal the stricken submarine was indeed the Grayback. He notified Earl’s mother on Jan. 21, 1946, and Earl was posthumously awarded the submarine insignia with three gold stars, personal and unit citations and the purple heart.

Unfortunately, this news did not provide final closure for many of the crew members’ families. Rumors of US sailors being held in Russia continued to swirl and many still hoped to see their loved ones one day… So, it was bittersweet on Nov. 11, 2019, when news broke that a 75-year-old mystery had been solved – the USS Grayback had been found. She was resting on her side at a depth of 1,400 feet not far from the enemy pilot’s last reported location. “We were elated” said Tim Taylor, an undersea explorer who set up the privately funded Lost 52 Project to track down the location of WW II’s lost US submarines. Taylor continued “But it was also sobering, because we just found (the final resting place of) 80 men”.

Earl was survived by his mother, Amelia; brother, Ervin (Barbara) Halvorson; three sisters, Elvira (Mrs. M.A. Kiel), Elaine (Mrs. Howard Johnson), Eunice (Mrs. Glenn Gniffke); and many uncles, aunts, and cousins in 1944. Today Earl is fondly remembered by his sister, Elaine Johnson of Marshall, MN (age 92, who is one of the last surviving family members to have known a crew member on the Grayback – she was 13 when Earl left). Earl’s memory is also honored by his nieces and nephews, David Kiel (now deceased), Lynn (& Dick) Knight of Minneapolis, MN, Paul Kiel of Brainard, MN, Diane (Halvorson) Wilson of St. Paul, MN, Mark (Kathy) Kiel of Minneapolis, MN, Johnny (& Sandy) Halvorson of Ballston, NY, Terry (& Peggy) Gniffke of Baha, Mexico, Deborah (Johnson) Anderson of Marshall, MN, Robert (& Layne) Johnson of Miami FL, Bradley (& Shirley) Gniffke of Datil, NM, Larry (& Wanda) Halvorson of Otseto, MN, Brian (& Shelly) Gniffke of Cottonwood, MN, Sue Kile of Minneapolis, MN, John Johnson of Athens, GA, Candy (& Gary) Kellen of Slayton, MN, Thomas (& Christine) Johnson of Watkinsville, GA, Rhonda (& Rick) DeJong of Sioux Falls, SD; grandnieces and grandnephews.

Though he lived only a short while, Earl’s legacy lives on in those he inspired, including many to volunteer for military service: his brother, Ervin (USN); nephews, Johnny (USN Submarine Service), Terry (Marines), Bradley (Army); and grandnephews, Travis Gniffke (Army) and Justin Gniffke (Army).

Finally, Earl’s family would like to extend their heartfelt appreciation to all those who made Earl’s memorial possible. Though Earl has been gone for more than 77 years, everyone including Zach Becvar (Department of Veteran Affairs – St. Louis), Heidi Fier and Julie Miller (Lyon County Veteran Services), US Congresswoman Michelle Fischbach and her staff: Ben Anderson, Cory Becker, and Craig Bishop, Jennifer Schultz (Northwest Regional Navy Gold Star Coordinator), Pastor Lyle Snyder (St. Stephen Lutheran Church – Marshall, MN), David & Elly Sprik and Emily Rethlake (Hamilton Funeral Home – Marshall, MN), Scott Thoma (Minneota Mascot Newspaper), and Tim Taylor (Lost 52 Project) as they treated his family and his memory with the highest importance and respect.

Arrangements by the

Hamilton Funeral Home in

Marshall, Minnesota.

507-532-2933

Guest book and tribute wall available online at www.hamiltonfh.com.

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