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Nazi hunter recalls life overseas during WWII

Photo by Casey Dixon

Photo by Casey Dixon

ALBANY -- It's a startling image that stirs emotions today just as easily as it did in 1944.

A photograph of a group of men, standing in a line in the bright sunshine of what appears to be a warm Mediterranean day.

Their faces wear a collage of determination and defiance dashed with fear and uncertainty.

Behind them a hole, about eight feet deep and 30 feet wide, freshly dug by their own hands, beckons while in front of them stare a row of rifles.

"I got these photos from a Nazi we captured after everything was done with," William Payne, a retired Army Captain, said. "Before he turned them over to us, I can remember him looking down and smiling, with this just evil grin, before my buddy knocked his teeth out with his rifle."

"This is why we did it," he said. "This is why we were there."

The photos, about five in all, show the execution of more than a dozen men believed to be members of a Nazi resistance on the island of Crete in the Mediterranean Sea.

It was one of the few items that Payne, now approaching 90, kept after the war. Recently, he showed them, for the first time, to a reporter. His hands clutched around them like they were an icon from a religious faith.

Payne was one of millions of Allied soldiers who fought in World War II, but his story is unique in many ways.

A follower of world events, Payne watched through newsreels as the Nazi war machine rolled through Poland in 1939. As it became more and more evident that the United States would eventually find itself in the war, Payne decided in August 1940, when he turned 19, that he would enlist into the Army Air Corps rather than risk being drafted and placed into another branch of the service.

He was given the option of three overseas assignments: the Philippines, Hawaii and Panama.

His first two choices were rejected which turned out to be fortuitous for Payne given that U.S. forces in both locations were attacked early on in the war.

His third choice, Panama, would be where the Army chose to send him, he said. Once there, he learned the in's and out's of repairing aircraft engines.

On Dec. 7, 1941, Payne says he and the rest of his unit were being housed in a two-story building in Rio Hato, Panama, when, in an eerie case of foreshadowing, a small earthquake rattled the structure.

"I can remember because there was this tremor that rattled the hangers in the closet and really made some of us feel uncomfortable," he said. "A few hours later, we got word on the radio that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. A few days later President Roosevelt gave his speech to Congress and we were at war."

Payne and his unit were pushed into a crash course, trying to ramp up for war. The Panama Canal, seen as a possible target for the Japanese, became the site of frenzied training exercises.

One night in Rio Hato, Payne remembers watching as they began training on shooting down enemy planes by using a dummy plane pulled behind a real plane.

"The engine started sputtering on that thing and we watched from the beach there as that plane came down and crashed right there in the water," he said. "My buddy and I jumped in the water and tried to swim out there to them, about a quarter mile out, and when we got to them we all just about drowned together."

But a group of villagers who had seen the plane go down paddled out to the survivors and pulled each of them, including Payne, back to shore.

It was one of his last experiences in Panama. As the war escalated in Europe, Payne was summoned to England to try and repair engines damaged during attacks by the Nazi Luftwaffe. In November 1943, Payne sailed with 19,000 others aboard the Queen Mary, a former luxury liner converted to a troop carrier during the war, to Scotland where he was then transported to England.

Briefly stationed in Southern England, Payne remembers watching as V-2 rockets and buzz bombs were dropped on London.

"It was like a sickening fireworks show, you know," he said.

Payne spent a considerable amount of time in England. By the time the Allies invaded Normandy, France, on June 6, 1944, Payne had been overseas for almost five years without seeing any combat.

"Well, it may sound funny, but I was 24 and I was worried that the war was going to end without me ever getting into the thick of it, so I asked to be put into the infantry," he said. "Can you imagine, looking back, some idiot actually wanting to be in the infantry? But at the time you're just a young man wanting to make your mark."

Around the first of May, 1945, Payne -- a tech sergeant at the time -- was given a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant and a platoon leader following a six-week crash course in Officer Candidate School and shipped out to join the 39th Infantry Regiment in General George Patton's 3rd Army Corp.

But before he saw any real combat, the war in Europe ended. But despite his lengthy tenure overseas, Payne wasn't shipped back to the United States immediately.

"They assigned me to this unit that was responsible for hunting Nazis," he said. "We had to get all of the war criminals that scattered to the wind at the end of the war and bring them to justice."

Based out of Nuremburg, Germany, Payne's unit traveled all over the continent arresting former SS and Nazi officials.

"The hard part was trying to figure out who these people were," Payne said. "Most of them weren't wearing uniforms and had no ID...they were just trying to blend in."

Upon his return, Payne tried to get a job with domestic airlines working on engines but found nothing. Still in uniform, he interviewed at an insurance company for a position as an adjuster and appraiser.

But he didn't stray far from the army. Still in the reserves, Payne thought that he would surely be headed to Korea when that conflict began in 1950.

Now married to his wife, Jean, and the father of a small child, Payne watched as others around him were dispatched to Asia. But by conflicts' end, Payne was never made to leave the country.

In 1957, he retired from the U.S. Army reserves as a captain and focused on civilian life.

Now in his 64th year with Jean, he lives in Albany, content with his retired life.

"Looking back I'd say that I've had a pretty interesting stint in the war, although I wasn't like those who saw a lot of combat," he said, with just a inkling of regret on his voice almost 70 years later. "I'm just glad I had the opportunity."

Almost 17 years ago, Payne's son asked him to document his experiences into a small autobiography so that his story would be passed on to future generations.

"It was a good idea because once we're all gone, all that will be left are our stories," he said. "And I'll bet you that some have already gone untold."