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Documents reveal fate of 13 missing sailors from the USS Indianapolis, iconic ship torpedoed in shark-infested waters during World War II

Video of sunken WWII ship
Up-close look at sunken USS Indianapolis, missing since WWII 02:57

Navy Seaman 2nd Class George David Payne was just 17 years old when a Japanese submarine torpedoed his ship in the last weeks of World War II, sinking the vessel and killing him along with more than 800 other U.S. sailors.

For decades, his family thought he was missing in action. But now the Navy says newly analyzed documents show he was actually buried at sea.

The teenager from the town of Wyoming, Michigan, is one of 13 sailors from the USS Indianapolis recently discovered to have been given Navy committal ceremonies 77 years ago. In response, the Navy changed their status from "unaccounted for" to "buried at sea."

"It's reassuring that he was found and hopefully he didn't suffer much," his brother, David Payne, said in an interview from Sparta, Michigan.

Payne said it was a "shock" to hear the news. He first thought it was a prank because his family always believed George's body was never found.

Two Japanese torpedoes hit the USS Indianapolis on July 30, 1945, when the heavy cruiser was on its way to the Philippines from Guam. The ship sank in just 12 to 15 minutes. The Navy estimates about 300 sailors were trapped inside and went down with the vessel.

The remaining 800 sailors abandoned ship, but rescue vessels didn't arrive for four days. Hundreds of sailors died in the interim from injuries, dehydration and shark attacks. Only 316 survived. It's known as one of the biggest tragedies in U.S. naval history.

"Survivors said it was terrible to be in the water and the sharks were just taking these young guys and older guys one at a time and eating them, and hauling them under and taking them away," said Payne. "And so that's what we always envisioned. You know, we hoped that maybe if he was on the ship maybe he was killed outright — instead of suffering."

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 "quiet, well-behaved kid."

World War II-Missing Sailors
Family photo provided by David Payne shows Seaman 2nd Class George David Payne in his Navy uniform.  AP

Gunner's Mate 3rd Class Floyd Ralph Wolfe was another one of the 13 sailors identified by the Navy as being buried at sea.

His nephew, William Baxter, was notified last month when officers arrived at his home in South Carolina with a certificate and flag to recognize Wolfe's sacrifice.

"It's nice to finally have some closure to what actually happened to [him]. Thank you all for going above and beyond for me and my family. I wasn't expecting all of this, but thank you," he said.

Rick Stone, retired chief naval historian the Naval History and Heritage Command, said researchers found the names of the 13 sailors in deck logs, commanders' reports and war diaries kept by the seven ships that recovered bodies.

These ships gave sea burials to 91 identified men, but for unknown reasons the names of only 40 of them were reported by the military. Another 51 names were not. The 13 newly identified come from this latter group. Stone said researchers have open cases on the remaining 38 and have "good clues" for the identities of five.

Stone suspects the names fell through bureaucratic cracks and were never followed up on.

It didn't help that the Navy announced the loss of the ship on the same day the war ended.

"The sinking of the Indy, which would have been front page news a week earlier, was kind of relegated to one of the midsections of the newspaper," he said.

Researchers with Stone's private foundation began looking for the records in January 2021. Stone said he started a file on the Indianapolis while working at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Agency and seeing hints that some sailors listed as missing had actually been found.

"Giving their loved ones and their families some kind of closure - I mean frankly and in all sincerity - it's the greatest gift I can imagine," Stone said.

Stone's group, Chief Rick Stone and Family Charitable Foundation worked with the Naval History and Heritage Command, the Navy Casualty Office, the USS Indianapolis Survivors Association and the USS Indianapolis Legacy Organization to find their names.

In 2017, civilian researchers said they located the wreck of the USS Indianapolis. The expedition crew of Research Vessel Petrel, which is owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, said it located the wreckage on the floor of the North Pacific Ocean, more than 18,000 feet below the surface, the U.S. Navy said.

Over the years numerous books recounted the ship's disaster and its role in delivering key components of what would become the atomic bomb "Little Boy" to the island of Tinian, the take-off point for the bomber Enola Gay's mission to Hiroshima in August 1945. Documentaries and movies, including "USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage" (2016) starring Nicolas Cage, have recounted the crew's horror-filled days at sea. The Indianapolis sinking also was a plot point in the Steven Spielberg blockbuster "Jaws" (1975), with the fictitious survivor Capt. Quint recounting the terror he felt waiting to be rescued.

The World War II cruiser USS Indianapolis at Pearl Harbor Hawaii
The World War II cruiser USS Indianapolis (CA 35), which was lost July 30, 1945 is seen at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, U.S. circa 1937. Courtesy U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command/U.S. Navy/Handout via Reuters
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