HONOLULU – Navy Seaman George David Payne was just 17 when a Japanese submarine torpedoed his ship during the final weeks of World War II, sinking the ship and killing him and more than 800 others American sailors.
For decades, his family thought he was missing. But now the Navy says newly analyzed documents show he was in fact buried at sea.
The Wyoming, Michigan, teenager is one of 13 sailors from the USS Indianapolis recently discovered to have received Navy enlistment ceremonies 77 years ago. In response, the Navy changed its status from “missing” to “buried at sea”.
“It’s reassuring that he was found and I hope he hasn’t been in much pain,” his brother, David Payne, said in an interview from Sparta, Michigan.
Payne said it was a “shock” to hear the news. He initially thought it was a prank because his family always believed George’s body had never been found.
Two Japanese torpedoes hit the USS Indianapolis on July 30, 1945, while the heavy cruiser was en route to the Philippines from Guam. The ship sank in just 12-15 minutes. The Navy estimates that around 300 sailors were trapped inside and sank with the ship.
The remaining 800 sailors abandoned ship, but rescue ships did not arrive for four days. Hundreds of sailors have since died from injuries, dehydration and shark attacks. Only 316 survived. It is known as one of the greatest tragedies in US naval history.
“Survivors said it was terrible to be in the water and the sharks were taking these young men and older men one by one and eating them and dragging them and taking them away,” Payne said. “And so that’s what we’ve always envisioned. You know, we were hoping that maybe if he was on the ship, maybe he would be killed instantly – instead of suffer.
Payne, who was born a year after the war ended, never met George, who was the third of 12 children. Payne said his older brother was known as a “calm, well-behaved kid”.
Rick Stone, retired chief naval historian of the Naval History and Heritage Command, said researchers found the names of the 13 sailors in ship’s logs, commanders’ reports and war diaries kept by the seven ships that recovered bodies.
These ships buried 91 identified men at sea, but for unknown reasons, the names of only 40 of them were reported by the military. 51 other names were not. The 13 newly identified belong to this last group. Stone said researchers had open cases on the remaining 38 and had “good clues” to the identities of five.
Stone suspects the names slipped through bureaucratic cracks and were never followed up.
It didn’t help that the navy announced the ship’s loss the very day the war ended.
“The sinking of the Indy, which would have made headlines a week earlier, has kind of been relegated to one of the midsections of the newspaper,” he said.
Researchers at Stone’s private foundation began searching the records in January 2021. Stone said he opened a file on Indianapolis while working at the joint accounting agency POW/MIA and that he had seen clues that some missing sailors had in fact been found.
“Giving their loved ones and their families some sort of closure — I mean bluntly and sincerely — is the greatest gift I could imagine,” Stone said.
Stone’s group, Chief Rick Stone and the Family Charitable Foundation worked with the Naval History and Heritage Command, Navy Casualty Office, USS Indianapolis Survivors Association and USS Indianapolis Legacy Organization to find their names.
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