PAWTUCKET, RI (WPRI) – The recovery was like finding a needle in a haystack that was sunk in about 100 feet of water and buried under 70 years of South Pacific silt.
Capt. Elwood Joseph Euart’s name has marked a VFW Hall in his hometown for what seems like forever.
But the story behind his heroics, and why his remains were not recovered until recently, has a new audience as he is finally coming home to be laid to rest next to his parents.
“When we were growing up in Pawtucket, he was like a mythological figure,” Paul Vallee, one of Euart’s nephews, said. “They say no one gets left behind, and the Army has done that. He’s coming back to where he should be.”
Euart was an officer on the SS President Coolidge on Oct. 26, 1942, as the giant ship named for the country’s 30th president approached the Espirtu Santo harbor. After World War II began, the Coolidge had been converted from a cruise liner into a troop transport vessel.
A PAIR OF MINES TAKE DOWN THE GIANT
According to a number of reports, the sailing orders on that day did not include details about how to avoid an American minefield set up to protect the area south of Australia.
“There were also warnings from shore,” Vallee said, recalling the history that he’s heard over the years. “But it was too late.”
The Coolidge hit one mine that tore through its engine room and killed fireman Robert Reid. A short time later, a second mine blew a hole in the stern.
Capt. Henry Nelson ran the Coolidge aground to avoid sinking in deeper water, and the vessel hit a reef, causing it to list to one side. The strategy still seemed to work as every man but Reid appeared to make it to safety over a period of about 90 minutes.
Captain Euart stayed on the ship, realizing there were other troops trapped in the ship’s infirmary. The 28-year-old teamed up with two of his mates, rushing toward the corridor that led to the infirmary.
According to the website Military Times, Euart lashed “himself to the lower end of a rope,” with the other end tied to a stanchion on the ship.
“He was able to hold it tight enough for men to climb to safety, even though the ship was listing badly,” the article read. “When he finally attempted to climb the rope himself, assisted by men at the top, it was hanging almost vertically. As he climbed, the ship careened and sank.”
The article went on to report: “Captain Euart’s intrepid actions, personal bravery and zealous devotion to duty at the cost of his life, exemplify the highest traditions of the military forces of the United States and reflect great credit upon himself, the 43d Infantry Division, and the United States Army.”
- MORE DETAILS – U.S. recovery unit on Santo
- LEARN MORE – Military team to recover remains
- THE CAPTAIN’S DECORATIONS – Euart’s valor awards
Other reports indicate Euart and his partners helped six men get out of the infirmary and to shore. At first, Euart and the other heroes were trapped but somehow two of them were forced out to safety as part of a giant air bubble when the ship sank.
Euart went down with the Coolidge.
“Give me a minute,” Vallee said, holding back tears for the uncle he would never meet. “He gave his life to save his fellow comrades. He was a captain and that was his job, to do whatever he had to do for his troops. That’s just the kind of guy he was.”
THE TRAGIC TELEGRAM HOME
Reid’s body was recovered from the engine room.
The Coolidge slipped off the reef and down into the channel. Her stern would eventually rest in about 200 feet of water and it was determined to be too dangerous to extricate Euart’s body.
The Western Union telegram made it to the Euarts’ Power Road home in Pawtucket on the day the captain died.
“The secretary of war desires me to express his deep regret,” the yellowed letter read. “Your son Captain Elwood Joseph Euart died October 26 in South Pacific area by drowning.”
The telegram is part of a thick binder of pictures and documents that Captain Euart’s family has put together and passed around from state to state over the years.
Euart would receive several commendations including the Distinguished Service Cross, but the honors were a sad consolation for his parents, who later bought a plot for their son at St. Frances Cemetery in Pawtucket, with the grave marker reading stoically: “Died at sea.”
In August 1948, an Army search team went to Espiritu Santo to potentially search for Euart but it was determined that his remains were “un-recoverable” due to the depth of the wreckage. The Euarts’ hopes that their son would someday come home were dashed. When they passed away, they were laid to rest with their names joining their son’s name on the grave marker.
SOMEDAY COMES SEVEN DECADES LATER
“Someday” finally came about three years ago.
The Coolidge was sold for salvage in the 1950s, and she became a popular spot for scuba divers who loved gliding through the barnacle-encrusted hull and silt-covered nooks and crannies.
One of those divers spotted what appeared to be human remains in 2012. That prompted a series of messages from Espiritu Santo to New Guinea to Australia, and then to U.S. authorities in Hawaii.
In 2015, a recovery team went down with a local dive team and brought the diver’s discovery to the surface.
“The Army let nothing stop them from getting the remains returned,” Vallee said. “We can’t say enough about that.”
Vallee admits he was skeptical when he was informed that his uncle’s remains might have been uncovered, more than seven decades after he died.
“Originally when I got the letter, I said this is a scam,” Vallee recalled. “This is a hoax. Someone’s trying to scam me here.”
Among what was pulled to the surface were Captain Euart’s dog tags, but further testing was required to verify his identity. Vallee and two of his cousins supplied the army with DNA, and several months later it was confirmed: the remains of their “mythological” uncle had finally been recovered.
“They spared no expense in bringing him back,” Vallee said. “They did a fabulous job.”
LONG DELAYED FUNERAL PLANNED FOR NEXT MONTH
The family had the option of laying their long-lost loved one to rest at Arlington National Cemetery, something his parents had tried to do.
“It wasn’t allowed because there were no remains,” Vallee said.
Now, even though that opportunity was on the table, Captain Euart’s descendants decided his final resting place should be by his parents at St. Frances.
“That just made the most sense to us,” Vallee said. “He’ll be buried with full military honors, next to his parents. It’s an amazing moment for the family.”
And an amazing moment for anyone who wondered about the story behind Pawtucket hero Capt. Elwood Joseph Euart.