SANFORD, Maine — Raymond Payeur keeps a box of letters on his kitchen table. They’re from folks who served aboard the USS Indianapolis and survived after the ship was torpedoed in the Philippine Sea on July 30, 1945. Between deaths that took place as the ship was hit and the deaths due to shark attacks and other ravages associated with being in the water for several days, three quarters of the 1,196 sailors and Marines were killed. Just 316 people survived.
Payeur, 92, keeps the letters close, but they’re not easy to read — and, he said, these days, he can’t read them. They tell tales of what the survivors saw as they endured four days in the water before help arrived.
The letters were penned by folks who Payeur met in his brief tenure aboard the Indianapolis, or met later at reunions. He asked survivors to write him their thoughts, about their experience, and they did.
Payeur, the Springvale lad who joined the U.S. Navy a week after his 18th birthday in January 1943, thinks of his war years often. When the news came a week ago that the USS Indianapolis had been found by a private research vessel, it brought back more memories.
“I was thinking of all them guys,” said Payeur. He posted a sign in his yard: “After 72 years, they found the wreck of my ship, USS Indianapolis.”
His time aboard the USS Indianapolis was short — just a matter of days — but he remembers it well. He was a passenger, on his way for a duty assignment at Pearl Harbor.
He remembers the cargo, and that it was heavily guarded by four Marines with fixed bayonets, though neither he or anyone else aboard knew exactly what the cargo was at the time.
Payeur said he stepped ashore and the Indianapolis continued on, delivering its cargo — which he later learned were components of the atomic bomb — to Tinian.
Payeur began his stint in World War II at boot camp in Newport, Rhode Island, and trained as a machinist in Boston. He was sent to Pier 92 in New York to await a ship assignment.
“They had me shoveling coal on a World War I German cruiser to furnish steam for the pier,” he said.
In September 1943, Payeur was assigned to the USS Sumter. He said a German submarine fired two torpedoes at the Sumter and missed as it was sailing between Cuba and Haiti.
On Jan. 13, 1944, the Sumter headed for Pearl Harbor, loaded 500 Marines and a week later headed out to rendezvous with the 5th Fleet, headed for the Marshall Islands.
“The battleships started their big gun — volley after volley that lasted all night,” Payeur wrote in a brief history of his naval service. “I helped the Marines with their heavy gear, over the rope nets down into 31 barges for the assault. I could see the Japanese Zeros, Corsairs and Hellcats. I could hear their machine guns in a fight for life.”
When it was all over, Payeur transferred to the USS Leon and then to a Merchant Marine ship called the SS Henry Bergh. They headed for San Francisco, but the ship ran aground in a heavy fog on Southeast Farallon Island. He and 10 others got on a lifeboat and were picked up later that night.
These days, Payeur, who went on to serve briefly in the Korean War, and then came home to Sanford, where he married and raised a family of seven, keeps busy volunteering with the Sanford Food Pantry. He has whittled a detailed replica of the USS Constitution, and has spoken of his war years at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., and at venues closer to home.
As to the USS Indianapolis, many of the survivors have died — Payeur said the last New England survivor, Robert Bunai of West Roxbury, Massachusetts, died in 2011.
Another survivor, Edgar Harrell, penned “Out of the Depths” in 2014, about his experience. Payeur has a copy, along with a CD, but like the letters, well, it is hard to read.
Payeur came home from the war, worked in the aircraft manufacturing industry for a time before opening a real estate business.
“I was lucky,” he said of his war experience. “Nothing happened to me.”