PAWTUCKET, R.I. (WPRI) – As Captain Elwood Joseph Euart was finally laid to rest in the city he left eight decades ago to go to war, many of his loved ones who came from across the country for the long-awaited funeral reflected on how they never thought the day would come.
“It’s bittersweet,” Nephew Len Euart said. “Sweet because he’s home. But bitter, since my grandparents, his parents, didn’t live to see the day.”
Winifred Casey Euart and her husband Elwood Francis Aloysius Euart set aside a plot for their son, hoping his remains would be pulled from the sunken wreckage of the President Coolidge transport ship.
The tombstone read “Died At Sea.”
His parents passed away, waiting. But they left behind a long line of descendants who all know the story of what Captain Euart did on October 26, 1942.
Nephew Euart traveled to Rhode Island for the ceremony and was also here decades ago at the age of 5, when VFW Post 602 was named for his uncle.
“That was the very first time that I was exposed to the story,” he said. “And I’ve never forgotten it.”
He’s also told it a few times over the years, as have many other relatives.
They share a five-inch-thick binder that is packed with documents and pictures about their heroic loved one.
“Everything is in there,” Nephew Paul Vallee said.
Vallee has children in Rhode Island, and visits often from his home in Vermont.
“He was a mythological figure growing up,” Vallee said. “But now, with all of this, it makes him real again.”
Vallee said when the first call came to his family that the remains were “possibly” discovered, he thought it was some sort of hoax.
That was four years ago, and about 70 years from when the Coolidge inadvertently hit a pair of American mines in a channel off Espiritu Santo in the South Pacific. Fireman Robert Reid was killed by one of the blasts that hit the boiler room and his body was recovered.
Captain Henry Nelson ran the Coolidge into a reef to avoid sinking in deeper water. As more than 5,300 troops scrambled to shore, Euart stayed on the ship after realizing there were six men still in the ship’s infirmary.
The 28-year-old teamed up with two soldiers and rushed toward toward a sharply angled corridor in the listing and sinking ship.
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. But then the ship gave way, and took the 28-year-old from Pawtucket with him.
“It’s something right out of a movie,” Vallee said. “It should be a movie.”
But the bittersweet ending would not have been possible without the one-in-a-million discovery by a scuba diver in 2012. About 100 feet underwater, drifting through the barnacle encrusted hull, he found remains near the infirmary.
A military recovery team found Euart’s dog tags and his compass and brought everything to the surface. Vallee was among the descendants who supplied DNA samples to verify the discovery.
The long wait started to dwindle last Saturday as Euart’s casket arrived at T.F. Green to a hero’s welcome. Then, Tuesday, with bagpipes wailing and a 21-gun salute echoing across Saint Francis Cemetery, family and strangers who had just heard the story of Euart heroics gathered.
John Euart, a Vietnam veteran, received the flag from his uncle’s casket.
“It’s easy to think that that’s what you or I would’ve done,” he said. “Thank God we haven’t had to face that challenge. Because the vast majority of people wouldn’t have turned around.”
His uncle did turn around.
“That’s just the kind of guy he was,” Vallee said.
As one relative put it, he lost his life but extended the lives of six men and all of their descendants.
Now, he’s home.