Archive for Thursday, December 4, 2003

At last, Pearl Harbor victim coming home

December 4, 2003

In 1940, a time when a pair of brown shoes cost $7.50 and a wool suit went for $39, a lean young man from Missouri went to enlist in the United States Navy. Before he was allowed to, officers told him a loose front tooth had to go.

And so it did for Payton L. Vanderpool Jr., -- "P.L." to his family and friends -- a 22-year-old man stationed at Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, the day the Japanese attacked the military installation in the south Pacific.

Payton, as did many other soldiers, died in the fiery surprise attack at Pearl Harbor that day. In an unmarked grave, he has remained on the island for the last 62 years.

That is, until this Sunday -- Dec. 7.

On Sunday, Fireman 2nd Class Payton L. Vanderpool Jr. will be buried with full military honors next to his parents and other family members at the Evergreen Cemetery in Braymer, Mo.

Through forensic analysis, Vanderpool's remains were positively identified. He was just the second unknown Pearl Harbor casualty identified since the attack.

His sister, Sudie Young, a resident of Wyandotte County who lives just a short jaunt from Basehor and Bonner Springs, said her brother would be afforded a full military burial at 1 p.m. Sunday.

"We decided to have it at 1 o'clock," she said from her home near Piper. "By having it then, it'll be almost to the minute he got killed."

The front tooth required by military officers for extraction before allowing Payton to enter the armed forces, played a role in his overdue identification.

Months ago, Ray Emory, an 82-year-old survivor of Pearl Harbor and national historian for the Pearl Harbor Survivors Association, contacted Sudie and inquired whether her brother had any missing teeth.

"They made him pull it and that left the little space right here," Young said, pointing to a photo of her brother grinning, a gap in the corner of his smile.

Emory, whose research also proved pivotal in the identification of the first unknown Pearl Harbor casualty, led the charge to disinter Vanderpool. He urged military officials that he had ample evidence to prove the sailor's identity.

The missing tooth, along with other dental records, photographs and a matching physical description, led to the identification, Young said.

"Ray Emory really pushed the Navy to get this done," she said. "He wants all those boys identified, not just this one."

Young and her sisters, Vera, Madolene and Thelma, were shocked and elated to hear news that after more than six decades, their brother was found.

"There wasn't any closure," Sudie Young said. "Now we know what it is and how it feels. We're happy we're still alive to put him in the family plot."

'Tall, skinny and good looking'

Holding a pair of pants her brother wore while in the Navy, Young says it's easy to see one thing -- he was tall, maybe 6-2 and skinny as a rail. The pants, small around the waist, rumple into piles when they reach the floor.

"He was tall, skinny and good looking," she said. "All the girls ooh-ed and awed at him in his Navy suit."

A photo of pre-Navy Payton shows him wearing a fedora, gray flannel suit and grinning a crooked smile.

Young, entrusted by her family to look after her brother's memorabilia, has a treasure trove of pictures, newspaper clippings, books, telegrams and medals relating to her brother and Pearl Harbor.

She clings to them today as she does the memories of her lost brother.

"He was a good brother," she said. "He always had a smile on his face.

"Once you read about what happened, you don't want to stop," she added. "I just want to know more and more."

'A day that will live in infamy'

On the day of the attack at Pearl Harbor, Sudie Young was baby-sitting her cousins in Lathrop, Mo.

Nearly a continent away, her brother, Payton, was finishing his shift aboard the USS Pennsylvania, which was in dry dock. The fuel, oil and explosives from the Pennsylvania were being stored on the USS Arizona. To this day, the Arizona rests at the bottom of the harbor.

"They say that's why it sunk so fast," Sudie said.

Vanderpool's shift on the Pennsylvania was scheduled to end at 8 a.m. when another sailor would relieve him. It was a break that neither he nor any other sailor at Pearl Harbor would ever enjoy.

At five minutes to the hour on Dec. 7, waves of Japanese fighter and bomber aircraft descended from the morning skies and began spraying the base with bullets, bombs and torpedoes.

A wounded Payton was placed aboard an ambulance heading for the hospital. The exact nature and extent of his injuries were never determined.

No one would see him alive again.

Vanderpool was among 24 men killed aboard the Pennsylvania that day.

"They didn't have to wear dog tags," Young said, "so no one could identify him."

In the weeks and months after the attack, the family received erratic telegrams from the Navy updating them on Payton's status. These reports varied from stating the sailor had been wounded, was missing, had survived and finally, that he had been killed.

Charles Cook, captain of the Pennsylvania, wrote to the family a year later, offering condolences and praising the young sailor.

"He carried out his duties unflinchingly and was a credit to the Navy and the nation," Cook's letter said. "He was a fine shipmate and his loss is felt by all who knew him. Please accept the deepest sympathy of myself and other officers and crew of the vessel."

In January 1942, Payton was earmarked to become a Fireman First Class. Excited about the promotion, he inscribed his new rank on a piece of his Navy duffel bag.

"He loved the Navy," Young said holding the inscribed cloth. "He wanted to stay in the Navy until he retired."

Q-179 heading home

Vanderpool's body, unidentified as were thousands of others, was buried Dec. 9, 1941, at the Halawa Cemetery in Honolulu.

In 1949, sailors resting at the cemetery were moved to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, also known as the Punchbowl. There, his grave was marked with the anonymous designation, Q-179.

In June of this year, Ray Emory, the Pearl Harbor survivor and historian, had persuaded the Navy to disinter Vanderpool's remains; Emory was sure his own research and findings could help positively identify the body in grave in Q-179.

After unearthing the grave, the body was found wrapped in a wool Navy blanket. The forensic anthropology report confirmed Emory's suspicion and indicates dental records from the body matched Payton's.

On Sunday, the journey which saw the sailor from Missouri to Hawaii will come full circle when friends and family participate in something they couldn't years ago -- a memorial service for Payton.

Payton Vanderpool Jr. will still have a presence at Pearl Harbor -- his name is inscribed with 2,500 others in the Courts of the Missing at Pearl Harbor monument -- but his place is back home.

Although the memorial service will not be as well attended on Sunday as it would have been in 1941, people will be there to remember "P.L.," his sister said.

There will be some family and friends missing from the service -- many have died, others too ill to make the trip, but Payton's sisters will be there. And a niece from Illinois and another relative from New York are coming, as well.

"I'm sure there will be some tears and I'm sure it will be emotional," Sudie said.

But perhaps the most satisfying reunion of all will occur when Payton is placed into the ground at the cemetery. After more than a half century, it's long overdue.

Payton will be buried just feet away from his parents.

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