Illinois veteran who died at Pearl Harbor to be buried

Ron Payne, right, and his son, Kody, pose for a photo with part of the official report from The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency about their relative, Charles Edward Nix, in Westville, Ill.


By NOELLE MCGEE | The (Champaign) News-Gazette | Associated Press | Published: December 29, 2018

DANVILLE, Ill. — The Western Union telegram arrived at Martha Taylor's house five days before Christmas 1941.

"The Navy Department deeply regrets to inform you that your son, Charles Edward Nix, signalman, third class, U.S. Navy, is missing following action in the performance of his duty and service of his country," it read.

Two months later, the Navy informed Taylor that her 26-year-old son was killed in action during Japan's surprise military attack on Pearl Harbor.

In the years following the attack, the Danville woman tried to find out what happened to her son's remains. And even though he was declared "non-recoverable," she never gave up hope that one day his remains would be identified and given a proper burial.

Nearly 76 years after his death, Nix's remains were finally identified thanks to advances in DNA technology. And next summer, his great-niece and great-nephew will be on hand when they're buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

"Even though she's not here, she's finally getting her closure," Ron Payne, of Fairmount, said of his great-grandmother.

Nix was born in Danville on Jan. 19, 1915, to Taylor (then Martha Nix) and Charles Nix, who died in 1920. His mother later married Buford Taylor.

According to a newspaper story that reported him missing in action, he attended Danville schools, then worked as a plumber's apprentice prior to enlisting in the Navy. He also served with the Danville National Guard for about eight years.

Nix enlisted at the Navy Recruiting Station in St. Louis on Jan. 23, 1940, then trained at Naval Training Station in Great Lakes. He was assigned to the battleship USS Oklahoma, which was part of the Pacific Fleet.

Payne, who grew up in Westville, recalled that Taylor always kept a picture of her son, whom she called Charlie, in his Navy uniform in her study.

"She would talk about how proud she was that he was on the Oklahoma," said Payne, a program manager at the National Center for Supercomputing Applications at the University of Illinois.

"When Pearl Harbor happened, she waited to hear what happened (to her son). Was he alive or not? She would never accept that he was gone because there was never a positive identification," said Payne, who regrets that his great-grandmother; grandmother, Mary (Payne) Paxton; and father, Ronald Payne, a former Westville police chief, all passed away before it finally came.

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency in Washington, D.C., recently announced that Nix was accounted for on Sept. 25, 2017.

This past spring, the agency called Ron Payne's older half sister, Lori Cummings, at her home in Houston to give her the news along with a 100-page document that included Nix's service records, information on the horrific attack that led the U.S. into war, what happened to the remains of the fallen who couldn't be identified and when and how forensic scientists were able to identify his remains.

It also included copies of the telegrams and other correspondence between the Navy and Nix's cousin, seeking answers on Taylor's behalf.

Immediately, Cummings called her brother and sent him a copy of the inch-thick file.

"We were shocked," Payne said. "We didn't even know they were doing this — testing the DNA."

Payne said he and his 18-year-old son, Kody — both of whom are history buffs and proud of their family's long military history — pored over the document for hours, learning things they never knew about Nix and the efforts made to find his remains.

"It's just amazing the things they sent," Payne said.

On Dec. 7, 1941, the Oklahoma was among the ships in Battleship Row, moored at Ford Island, Pearl Harbor, when the fleet was attacked by Japanese aircraft. The ship sustained multiple torpedo hits, which caused it to quickly capsize and sink.

Nix was one of the 429 on board who died. He received a Purple Heart posthumously.

Taylor's first telegram — from Rear Admiral Randall Jacobs, chief of the Bureau of Navigation — was followed by a second one about two months later.

"After exhaustive search, it has been found impossible to locate your son, Charles Edward Nix," Jacobs wrote, "... and he has therefore been officially declared to have lost his life in the service of his country as of Dec. 7, 1941. The Department expresses to you its sincerest sympathy."

There was also a letter from Frank Knox, secretary of the Navy, offering his condolences.

"It is hoped that you may find comfort in the thought that he made the supreme sacrifice upholding the highest traditions of the Navy, in defense of his country," he wrote.

Payne was moved to find handwritten letters from a relative, Sterling B. Ford Jr., of Danville, who wrote to the Navy on Taylor's behalf.

"I had never heard this part of the story before," Payne said.

"I am a cousin of the boy whose name follows in the next 2 pages of this letter," Ford scrawled in a letter received on Dec. 1, 1947.

"I am writing this for his mother. (She has suffered enough.) Please answer this letter for her," he continued, asking for confirmation of Nix's death and whether his body was found.

Payne said another letter is just as heartbreaking.

"I am sending this letter for his mother," Ford tried again. "She grieves over this boy all the time. She wants some information."

On Jan. 22, 1948, Rear Admiral C.A. Swanson, the Navy's surgeon general, wrote Taylor, though it didn't provide the answers she wanted.

"Mr. Sterling B. Ford Jr., of your city has written in your interest requesting that you be advised as to whether or not the remains of your son, the late Charles Edward Nix, ... (have) been recovered and that you be furnished confirmation of your son's death. You are advised that the records of this Bureau show that your son's body has not been recovered to date. As confirmation of your son's death there is enclosed a Report of Death."

In October 1949, the Department of the Army Office of the Quartermaster General said in a memo that Nix's remains had been declared non-recoverable by a special military board convened in the field, as well as by its office.

"Subject forms have been compared by the Identification Branch with unidentified remains from the USS Oklahoma and cross-checked against all 7 December 1941 unknowns with negative results," the report said.

It's not clear if Taylor was sent a copy.

The DPAA said that from December 1941 to June 1944, Navy personnel recovered the remains of the deceased crew, which were interred in the Halawa and Nu'uanu cemeteries. In September 1947, members of the American Graves Registration Service, tasked with recovering and identifying fallen U.S. personnel in the Pacific Theater, disinterred the remains and transferred them to the Central Identification Lab at Schofield Barracks.

The laboratory staff was only able to confirm the identification of 35 men from the Oklahoma at that time.

The unidentified remains were buried in 46 plots at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, known as the Punchbowl, and the military board classified them as non-recoverable.

Then in April 2015, the deputy secretary of defense issued a policy memorandum directing the disinterment of unknowns associated with the Oklahoma. That June, DPAA personnel began exhuming the remains for analysis.

Payne was fascinated when he read how with a DNA swab from Jody-Ann McDaniel, a cousin on Nix's mother's side, scientists from DPAA and the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System used mitochondrial DNA analysis, dental and anthropological analysis, as well as circumstantial and material evidence, to identify Nix's remains, including his cranium, mandible, right humerus, left and right femur, left hip and a tooth.

The last page of Nix's file: A new death certificate, issued Sept. 25, 2017, declaring his death a homicide.

Payne visited the WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument over the USS Arizona about 15 years ago. He hopes to return to Hawaii one day to see it again and visit the Wall of the Missing at the Punchbowl, where Nix's name is recorded. Now, a rosette will be placed by his name, indicating he's been accounted for.

In the meantime, Payne is looking forward to returning to Arlington with his sister and son to see Nix buried with military honors — something his great-grandmother never got to do.

"It'll have a completely different meaning" this time, said Payne, who has walked among the 400,000 white headstones of servicemen and women several times on school field trips with his son and daughter.

"Whenever we went, we always went to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We would always talk about the POWs because an uncle on my mom's side was a POW in the Korean War. And we would always talk about Charles Nix. That's really what the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier was for — people who had never been identified. Now, we have a marker for him."


Source: The (Champaign) News-Gazette

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