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Navy changes status of 13 sailors lost in World War II

By Judy Reed

Seaman 2nd Class George David Payne was one of the men killed in the sinking of the USS Indianapolis. He was only 17 years old. Courtesy photo.

A local man had a bit more closure this past Memorial Day, after learning that the brother that he never knew was one of 13 sailors who officially had his status changed by the U.S. Navy from “unaccounted for” to “buried at sea.”

“The announcement helps bring closure to the families of these Sailors who lost their lives at the end of a secret mission which helped end World War II,” it said in a release by the Navy Personnel Command.

Seaman 2nd Class George David Payne, of Grand Rapids, was one of those 13—a sailor on the infamous USS Indianapolis, which was sunk on July 30, 1945, after being struck by two Japanese torpedoes.

The Post reached out to his brother, David Payne, who lives at Camp Lake, near Sparta, to talk about George, and how he felt about the Navy’s announcement.

George was the son of George E. and Lillian Payne, of Grand Rapids, and, according to the 1940 census, when George was 12, he was one of eight children. He had two older stepsiblings, and five younger siblings at the time. David, the brother we spoke with, was not born into the family until later.

George Payne before enlisting. Courtesy photo.

“George was 17 when he signed up for the Navy,” said David. “My dad had to sign for him.”

According to David, George went to San Francisco, and was actually assigned to another ship other than the Indianapolis. But he wanted to stay a little longer for his stepbrother’s wedding, and was transferred to the Indianapolis.

In July 1945, Indianapolis completed a top-secret high-speed trip to deliver parts of the first nuclear weapon ever used in combat (the bomb that was dropped on Hiroshima), to the United States Army Air Force Base on the island of Tinian, and then departed for the Philippines on training duty. At 0015 hours on 30 July, the ship was torpedoed by the Imperial Japanese Navy submarine I-58, and sank in 12 minutes. Of 1,195 crewmen aboard, approximately 300 went down with the ship. The remaining 890 faced exposure, dehydration, saltwater poisoning, and shark attacks while stranded in the open ocean with few lifeboats and almost no food or water. The Navy only learned of the sinking four days later, when survivors were spotted by the crew of a PV-1 Ventura on routine patrol. Only 316 survived. 

Last letter George Payne wrote to his family, exactly one week before the sinking of the ship. Courtesy photo.

David said that he attended the dedication of the USS Indianapolis memorial, and spoke to one of the survivors and asked him if he knew his brother, George, and that his family had received a letter from him dated July 23, 1945. The man told David that if George boarded in San Francisco, he was probably only on the ship about two weeks before it sunk. And that the letter they received him was probably in the last batch of letters to go out.

The family, of course, was devastated when they got the news about the sinking, and that their son and brother was unaccounted for. “My older brother (in San Francisco) never came home for 15-20 years because he felt guilty that he was the cause of George getting transferred to another ship,” explained David.

Because David was not born until after George was killed, he had no idea what had happened. “I didn’t even know I had a brother that was killed until I was like 7 or 8 years old,” he recalled. “We were watching a tv show on the sinking of the USS Indianapolis, and my mother started crying and I asked her why. She told me my brother was on that ship. So we then wanted to see his medals, his uniform, and stuff like that,” said David. “She would have my younger brother put on his uniform.”

How does David feel about what happened to his brother, George?

“He was just a young guy, an innocent kid,” he said. “We just figured he went down the ship, but we don’t know exactly what happened. There were guys floating in the water with sharks everywhere. Survivors told terrible stories of those floating in the water. I always hoped he got killed instantly.”

The Navy called David a couple of months ago about George. “What we are trying to tell you is that he was found, and was buried at sea,” they told him.

Due to administrative errors, many Sailors who were recovered from the ocean and buried at sea from responding vessels were misclassified as “missing in action “or “unaccounted for.” George happened to be one of them.

“I wondered how he was identified. But it is more comforting to know now that he was buried at sea,” said David.

According to the foundation’s USS Indianapolis Burial at Sea Project web page, “recovering a lost Sailor, giving their loved ones and family closure, is the greatest gift we can imagine and the greatest way to celebrate and thank the Sailors who lost their lives aboard the USS Indianapolis.”

“One of my favorite quotes is ‘Poor is the nation that has no heroes but shameful is the nation who, having heroes, forgets them,’” said Rick Stone, who initiated the USS Indianapolis Burial at Sea project. “Our foundation will never forget the heroes of the USS Indianapolis and are proud of our role in helping 13 families learn that the Navy went to great lengths to honor them soon after their deaths.”

Capt. Robert McMahon, director of the Navy Casualty Office, said bringing closure to families of those lost at sea is a “solemn duty and obligation” he takes to heart.

“Nothing is more important to me than giving families that knowledge when the unthinkable happens,” he said. “No amount of time lessens the loss, however, if we can bring some certainty to loved ones, even seven decades later, we are keeping faith with those we lost.”

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One Response to “Navy changes status of 13 sailors lost in World War II”

  1. USS Indianapolis Burial at Sea Project

    During his tenure as the Chief, Naval Historian at the Naval History and Heritage Command (NHHC), Rick Stone began examining some Indy casualties who were apparently recovered, identified and buried at sea, but who were still officially listed by the Department of Defense as “Unaccounted For.” After retiring from the Navy, researchers from the Chief Rick Stone and Family Charitable Foundation began work with NHHC, USS Indianapolis Legacy and the Survivors Organizations, and other government historians to investigate the cases of thirteen members of the Indy crew who may have been buried at sea. These investigations were completed on in May and August 2021 and submitted to NHHC with recommendations for referral to the Secretary of the Navy for appropriate action. On 27 May 2022, the U.S. Navy officially changed the status of all 13 Indy sailors to “Accounted For – Buried at Sea.”

    The Chief Rick Stone and Family Charitable Foundation believes that giving their loved ones and family members closure is the greatest way to celebrate and thank the sailors and Marines who lost their lives on the USS Indianapolis. For more information visit our website at ChiefRickStone.com

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