Sunday, October 19, 2008

And so the real story begins

Lou Ann remained seated while everyone else left the room. My second genealogy class had just finished and the participants were off to their next activity. I felt good about the discussions that had just transpired and the exchange of stories was enlightening and inspiring; the idea of pursuing low-tech research really hit home with the members of this class. Using modern technology just wasn’t their style. Lou Ann had been particularly insightful, allowing glimpses into her past throughout the previous hour. But now, seeing her sitting there, I casually thought she may need help reaching her cane and was quietly hoping I would assist. The cane was hanging on the back of a chair just out of her reach. But she motioned for me to sit, instead. As I took the chair next to her, she said, “I don’t know why I’m telling you this.” Her wrinkled face relaxed as her eyes seemed lost in memory. She rested her hand on mine for emphasis. Or was it for support? And so the real story begins.

For the next 30 minutes Lou Ann and I sat around a small circular table in the middle of the activities room at Ponder Creek Estates. The table was covered with photos, letters, and other documentation that I brought as evidence of low-tech genealogy research. My argument is that SOMEONE has access to the information you seek; you just need to have the patience to find that person and ask the right questions. And, although modern technology may make the process faster in some cases, I must admit that the personal connections born through interviews, letter writing, and phone calls certainly make the research more memorable.

Lou Ann, however, was not contemplating her next research option. Rather, she was lost in a memory some 67 years old. In her slightly shaky voice she explained to me that her brother, Walter Collis Payton, had joined the Navy in the early 1940’s and was assigned to the U.S.S. Pillsbury as a Seaman 1st class. The 314 foot Clemson-class destroyer, named for John E. Pillsbury, was operating in the vicinity of Borneo when the Japanese struck Pearl Harbor. Just two days after Roosevelt’s delivery of his famous speech, proclaiming December 7, 1941 as "a date which will live in infamy,” the Payton family of Kentucky received the devastating news that their Collis was “missing in action.” That was the last official word of him.

Lou Ann was just 19 years old when Collis went missing. She contends the Navy never found a body or made any official explanation of his status. There was no burial, no memorial service. A young man left his Kentucky home and no trace of his legacy remains today. It is a mystery in her eyes how a man can simply vanish off the face of the earth.

Possibly more troubling to Lou Ann are the “sightings” of Collis back in the states after the war. Her eyes narrowed as she told me the story of returning to her apartment after a weekend away with a friend in post-WWII years to learn from a neighbor that her brother had stopped by to visit. She quickly determined that her younger brother, the only brother she had left, had not been in the area. The description of the visitor from the neighbor matched Collis. A second story describes a scene where a slightly older Lou Ann feels certain that she sees Collis walking down the city street. When she called out to him, the man intentionally quickened his pace, found the first taxi cab, and disappeared without looking back. Lou Ann contacted a military official and explained these unusual sightings. To her dismay, the Navy had no comment.

The eyes soften for the final recollection, the recent receipt of a letter from a woman identifying herself as the daughter of Collis’s long-time girlfriend. While the woman does not claim to be Collis’s biological child in the letter, she does expound on her mother’s life-long love for the man. Lou Ann feels certain the woman is trying to make familial connections.

At the end of the conversation, Lou Ann, once again said, “I don’t know why I told you these things.” It was my turn to rest a hand on hers. “It is important to ask the right people the right questions. I may just be the right person to help you solve this mystery.” She allowed a warm smile, thanked me for my time, and finally reached for her cane.

All I could do on the drive home was formulate a research strategy to discover the facts that would lesson Lou Ann’s pain. It is obvious that the 86-year-old still longs for her big brother and needs answers to the lingering questions that continually haunt her. What happened on the U.S.S. Pillsbury in the days after Pearl Harbor that caused Collis to go “missing?” Why didn’t the Navy communicate more with the family? Is it possible that Collis survived the war?

A preliminary online search found three relevant documents. First, the Register, World War II Dead Interred in American Military Cemeteries on Foreign Soil and World War II and Korea Missing or Lost or Buried at Sea offers conflicting information. It lists Walter C. Payton’s last known status as “missing” alongside the death date of 10 Dec 1941. Supposedly he was awarded the Purple Heart Medal for his sacrifice. Lou Ann made no mention of a Purple Heart during our conversation. Next, the State Summary of War Casualties from World War II for Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard Personnel indicates Walter Collis Payton’s type of casualty is “killed in action.” Third, a summary of the Pillsbury's WWII activities explains that it was involved in heavy action with the Japanese for several months after Pearl Harbor before finally sinking 01 Mar 1942. There is much more to learn about its history.

While I may have found three pieces of evidence quickly using modern technology, it will still take letters, phone calls, and many hours of dedicated, focused work to reach any type of conclusion. Low-tech sleuthing at its finest. I’ve already drafted a letter on behalf of Lou Ann to the National Personnel Records Center (Military Personnel Records) in St. Louis requesting more detailed reports. As next of kin, Lou Ann is entitled to this information (if not classified) under the Freedom of Information Act. My experience with requesting military records has always been positive, yet slow. We should not expect to receive news for several months.

So now it is a test of patience. I will continue to research Collis’s life in the hopes of uncovering some clue that has remained hidden for 67 years. I will document every lead and preserve evidence for review. Lou Ann and I will patiently wait for news from the Navy. She cannot completely relax, yet. Collis Payton may be the subject of the research, but the real story lies with Lou Ann. Her will to keep Collis’s esteemed legacy alive is remarkable, and I’m honored to help preserve his rightful place in history.

1 comment:

Becky said...

A wonderful and touching story! In the end, this is what family history research is all about, whether making a connection with one of your family members or with someone totally unrelated. I wish you luck in your quest to find information on her brother. Of course, if he did survive the war, the real mystery begins - why didn't he go home?