Candler family honors long-lost vet

The wind gusted, almost toppling the tarp under which the mourners stood.

They had come to pay their respects nearly 60 years after the man they gathered to honor had died.

By 2 p.m. on Oct. 20, several dozen family and friends had taken chairs or stood underneath the canopy in the small church cemetery of Pleasant Hill United Methodist Church in Candler.

Many had never met the man they were here to honor. Others had known him briefly, memories fleeting and faded with time.

"George is no longer lost at sea."

Jennifer Harris said of her uncle, George Campbell

But there they stood, wind chapping faces as they stared at the memorial marker, the framed photos, the medals and the flag, trimmings of tribute for the man who died to protect them.

This day had been a long time coming. Many never imagined it would.

For 59 years, the family never knew what happened to George Campbell, who entered WWII a young man and never made it home.

Not alive. Nor dead.

The mystery of Campbell, third of seven children born to Adelbert and Dell Campbell, has finally been solved.

As a result, the entire family can put to rest the questions and worries. They knew he never came home from the war after his ship, the SS Samuel Heintzelman had been torpedoed by enemy fire in the Indian Ocean. But they weren't sure how he died. Or what happened.

"The thing that always bothered me," said Jennifer Harris, Campbell's niece, the woman who searched for answers and arranged for the service, "was you didn't know if he died in the water, or if he drowned or was in a lifeboat and ran out of water to drink."

When she found the real story, posted on an Internet Web site by Eric Andersen in Salem, Ore., she was shocked and speechless. "When I got my computer," Harris said, "that really helped with the search."

This is how she came across the Andersen's site paying tribute to his own uncle and the others aboard the same ill- fated ship.

The SS Samuel Heintzelman, a liberty ship loaded a crew of 70 and 5,644 tons of ammunition and on a lone voyage steaming through the Indian Ocean, was blown to bits by a German submarine, firing one torpedo. The catastrophic explosion obliterated the ship, its men and all but a few scraps of evidence it ever existed.

No one was ever found. No one ever saw the ship explode. When the submariners surfaced to see what they'd hit, they saw nothing, according to reports.

"I couldn't believe it when I found out what happened to Uncle George," Harris said, staring at the photograph of the blue-eyed, dark-headed sailor. The American flag was next to the photo, as were the medals, all the badges of bravery and battle.

"Me and my mom sat there and read it and cried. This way, at least we know his death was quick."

* * *

Like most young men of his generation, Campbell went to war, his future paused by Pearl Harbor. He came home once or twice. And then never again.

Campbell was an ordinary boy for his time. He lived on a farm, worked in the gardens and fields, and would walk across the mountain to pick strawberries for a penny a quart.

He had his share of buddies and girlfriends.

When he was barely 20, he enlisted in the Navy, boarding ships and traveling waters, oceans teeming with enemies lurking beneath the surface.

One of his early assignments was aboard the SS Sheherazade. It was torpedoed by a German U-boat. One was killed, 26 managed to squeeze into the launch, and the other nine waited in the cold water for three hours before being rescued.

Campbell treaded water while fish ate away the skin on his toes and feet. He was sent home, back to Candler, to recover.

His next big mission, aboard the SS Samuel Heintzelman, was his last.

Everyone, everything, seemed to vanish. Even the ship itself.

"If something was known for certain about the ship's loss, even if one eyewitness had survived, then my family would surely have been able to better recover from this disaster," Andersen said in his Internet account of his Uncle Stewart and the other men's fate. "Stewart's mother was especially hard hit by this. It was said she would often look out the window expecting, hoping to see her son come home, walking up the steps in his Crackerjack uniform."

Campbell's mama was in the same state of mind as Stewart's mother.

"She always hoped he'd one day walk home," Harris said. "She'd stand at the window and look."

Hearing these stories for years, Harris knew she had to do something that would bring closure.

When she was a little girl, she saw the pictures of her uncle, standing next to her father and other boys in the family, all of them making it home from the war alive.

All but her Uncle George.

"From that point on," she said, "it bothered me that he didn't come home." There was nothing. No body, nothing but an official letter from the Secretary of the Navy declaring George dead in Jan. 1946. His official death, was July 9, 1943, the day the ship exploded.

Finally, on a cold October afternoon, more than 56 years after the Navy's letter, the long-awaited service for George Campbell began.

"We gather on this hallowed ground to pay homage to a man who paid the ultimate sacrifice when his country, when his world, desperately needed his services," said the Rev. Neil Haynes, pastor of Snow Hill Methodist Church. "Multitudes died during the horrible battles and ordeals of World War II. There are many stories that will go unfinished, but this is one story that can be brought to some closure."

Harris ordered a memorial stone and placed it in family plot, next to the headstone of George's mother and father, a brother and a sister.

"So we gather here today at this sacred spot," the reverend continued, "to remember a precious person. He was a member of this family and of this community. He should have celebrated his 81st birthday this year. He should have come home and married his girlfriend, had children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren. He should have returned to grow gardens and plant cornfields and pick strawberries.

"George died two days before his 22nd birthday . It is because of men like George, that you and I have the freedom to live, to play to worship, to speak our convictions without fear of reprisals."

When Rev. Haynes completed his portion of the service, the mourners recited the "Lord's Prayer."

In the distance, on a hill above the family, Chuck Farlow of the Enka High School ROTC, lifted his bugle and played Taps.

"At least there is now something at the cemetery for future generations - to let them know that this man gave his life for his country and will be remembered," Harris said. "George is no longer lost at sea.

"We brought him home."

Susan Reinhardt's column appears Sunday, Tuesday and Friday. Call 232-5844 or

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