Wake, funeral being held for WWII hero lost in Pacific in 1942
The Providence Journal, R.I. | .
published: August 31, 2016
PAWTUCKET, R.I. (Tribune News Service) — Elwood Vallee drove down from New Hampshire on Monday to attend the wake and funeral services for the uncle he is named after.
He died 74 years ago.
For three quarters of a century, the remains of Army Capt. Elwood J. Euart, of Pawtucket, remained entombed in a sunken ship in the South Pacific. Only the story of his bravery would escape.
Then four years ago, a diver exploring the wreck of the troop carrier President Coolidge discovered human remains inside the ship. He hid them deep into the silt to keep them safe.
The recovery effort that soon followed will end Wednesday when Euart’s remains are buried beside those of his parents in St. Francis Cemetery.
They had left a grave plot open for him decades ago in hopes of this day.
“There shouldn’t be any sadness after 74 years,” Elwood Vallee, who is 71, said Monday, “just tremendous honor.”
Euart was 28 when he died on Oct. 26, 1942, less than a year after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, drawing the United States into World War II.
The Coolidge, a former cruise liner, was carrying more than 5,000 troops of the 43rd Infantry Division when it struck two mines entering the harbor at Espritu Santo in what is now the Republic of Vanuatu. Immediately the ship began listing.
Department of Defense records say the ship’s captain purposely grounded the vessel on a coral reef, allowing virtually all of the men to jump over the side or rappel down knotted ropes to safety.
Euart was among those who escaped — at first. The citation accompanying his Distinguished Service Cross tells the rest of the story:
After hearing reports of some men still trapped below deck, Euart organized a small rescue party and climbed back aboard.
A former Eagle Scout and National Guardsman, Euart lashed himself to the lower end of a rope and held it tight enough for a half dozen men to climb to safety, even as the shipped listed further.
When he finally attempted to climb the rope himself, assisted by a few men at the top, the rope was hanging almost vertically.
Then the ship careened to the side, slipped off the reef, and sank in about 60 feet or water, taking Euart with it.
A team of divers from the Department of Defense eventually recovered Euart’s remains and matched his DNA with several of his living relatives to bring him home this week.
Euart never married; his closest survivors are 11 nieces and nephews.
Elwood Vallee says he grew up in Pawtucket, hearing the story of his uncle’s bravery each Veterans Day, every Memorial Day; a local VFW Post is named in his honor.
“Over the years it got to be old hat, honestly,” he said. “But this is just an honor now to have him back in Rhode Island.”
When Gertrude Hunt, 91, of Cumberland, read Elwood Euart’s obituary the other day in The Providence Journal, all she could think of was her brother, Joe — and how grateful he was his entire life to Elwood Euart.
For Joseph F. Hunt was one of the soldiers Euart saved, she said.
“My brother prayed every day of his life for Capt. Euart,” she said. “He was always indebted to him for the extended life he got that poor Elwood never did.”
Joseph Hunt died in 2001.
If her health allows, Gertrude Hunt said she will attend Euart’s wake Tuesday at Keefe Funeral Home, in Lincoln, where many dignitaries are expected and Euart’s medals will be reissued to his relatives.
“There aren’t many of us left to appreciate this,” she said. “They are all gone.”
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