Lost at sea, WWII veteran finally comes home to R.I.

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PAWTUCKET — Given the selfless acts of service in wartime performed by Capt. Elwood Joseph Euart in which he lost his own life while saving the lives of his World War II shipmates, his surviving family could easily have requested that his recently discovered remains — finally brought back home 74 years later — be interred at Arlington National Cemetery along with other military heroes.

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Instead, the remains of the soldier, who died at the age of 28, were brought with full military honors to a tree-shaded grove in his hometown’s quaint historic Catholic cemetery. On Aug. 31, Capt. Euart was buried alongside his late parents in a plot they had purchased for him decades ago in the hope their beloved son would one day be recovered from the depths of the South Pacific and returned to them.

Captain Elwood Joseph Euart, Field Artillery, United States Army, 1st Battalion, 103rd Field Artillery, Rhode Island National Guard, a Pawtucket native, lost his life in the sinking of the troop ship SS. President Coolidge in the Southwest Pacific on October 26, 1942.

After his ship struck mines while entering the harbor at what was then Espiritu Santo, and now known as the Republic of Vanuatu, 1,000 miles off the coast of Australia, the vessel was initially grounded on a reef to allow the 5,000 soldiers aboard from the Army’s 43rd Infantry Division a chance to escape.

According to an eyewitness account later provided in a letter to Capt. Euart’s parents from the Catholic chaplain ministering to those aboard the ship, their son died heroically while saving fellow soldiers.

After learning that some soldiers were still trapped below decks, Capt. Euart led a rescue party to free them all. After ensuring everyone had made it safely out he was the last soldier to take hold of the rope and begin the climb to safety, according to the chaplain, Father John Mahoney.

“The ship listed to one side, and Capt. Euart had tied a rope about himself and fastened it to a railing so that he could rescue many boys who were unable to climb up the slippery railing and water-filled ship. And he did rescue them all,” Father Mahoney wrote in his letter, which was shared with Rhode Island Catholic by members of the Euart family.

“Then just as he had expended all of his strength in saving others and two of his fellow officers were about to pull him to safety, the ship went down. Capt. Euart’s body is still tied to his post. He died doing more than his duty. And his heroic sacrifice has instilled in us all a spirit which will help every man in our combat team to carry on for Capt. Euart and for our beloved country.”

The ship had suddenly slipped off the reef and plummeted 200 feet to the ocean floor, taking Capt. Euart to the bottom, where he would be entombed for more than 70 years.

In recognition of his heroism, Captain Euart was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Service Cross (the nation’s second highest award for valor), the Purple Heart and the Rhode Island Cross.

About two years ago a professional diver exploring the wreck discovered Capt. Euart’s skeletal remains as well as some of his personal effects. The diver covered the remains in silt to protect them until they could be properly recovered.

In 2015 the U.S. Army deployed a dive team from Hawaii to the site. Recovering the remains, the military requested DNA samples from three of Capt. Euart’s family members in an effort to prove his identity. The remains were conclusively identified as his.

From Hawaii, Capt. Euart’s remains were transported first to Atlanta, then aboard a Delta Airlines flight to T.F. Green Airport in Warwick. A Mass of Christian Burial was held at St. Maria Goretti Church in Pawtucket before his interment nearby at St. Francis Cemetery.

Father Robert L. Marciano, a former chief of chaplains for the U.S. Air Force and serving at the Pentagons and current chaplain of the Warwick fire and police departments, was the celebrant at the Mass, with Auxiliary Bishop Robert C. Evans presiding, along with Auxiliary Archbishop Emeritus for the Military Services Francis X. Roque.

Father Marciano agreed with the military adjutant general who said during the wake the night before that military service cannot teach someone to make the sacrifice that Capt. Euart did — it comes from within.

“It came from the depth of his faith, a Catholic faith that he cherished and nourished and loved, attending Mass every day on that ship, worshipping a God whose only Son mounted the finest pulpit of all time — that cross of Calvary — and bowed his head in death so that he could destroy death forever,” Father Marciano said during the homily.

“How many times had Capt. Euart, from his youngest days, gazed upon a crucifix in his brief life and thought of that? And that as he lowered himself down, tethered to a rope that day, deep into a sinking ship to save others, how Our Blessed Lord must have smiled to see that so many centuries later, brave souls had heard his message and were ready to follow him so that others might live.”

Capt. Euart was not married, and there are no longer any living relatives from his era. His father, Elwood F.A. Euart died in 1969, and his mother Winifred G. (Casey) Euart died in 1983. He was survived by six siblings, all of whom are now deceased. His closest survivors today are 11 nieces and nephews who reside across the country, from North Dartmouth, Mass., to Maine and from South Carolina to Texas.

One of those relatives, who was born in Pawtucket and now serves as a Sister of Mercy in Maryland, said that even though the family has known for about two years now that Capt. Euart had been found, the whole experience has been overwhelming.

“None of us ever knew him,” Sister Sharon Euart, RSM, said of Capt. Euart, who would be 102 if he were still alive today.

“We grew up with this story and the story never changed. He was a person that we idolized and had a great respect for and that’s why one of the prayers of the faithful was that he would become for us a model of courage and compassion and inspire us and the children of my brothers and sisters and my cousins.”

Elwood Joseph Euart II, Capt. Euart’s namesake, traveled from Irving, Texas to attend the funeral and burial. His father, John Francis Euart, was the captain’s younger brother.

Although he was born in Virginia, he lived for a few years in his youth in Pawtucket, and even returned later to attend the University of Rhode Island like his uncle did.

“He got the recognition that he so deserves,” he said. “For those that remember him or remember the family, they can certainly understand the sacrifice he made and that he’s now with his parents.”

John F. Euart and wife Susan came from Atlanta to attend the services.

“It’s all our kids have talked about,” Susan said of their six children. “They are so interested, and to see a younger generation be interested in a World War II vet and to see what heroism he showed it’s just a wonderful thing to pass on and have this story continue.”

Capt. Euart was known as a true son of Rhode Island: an Eagle Scout, a graduate of Rhode Island College — now The University of Rhode Island — Class of 1939, and a Rhode Island National Guardsman.

George Costa, 96, one of Elwood’s neighbors while they were kids growing up in Pawtucket, drove himself to the church and cemetery to attend the services.

“I knew him because I lived a block away. The family was great, no doubt about that,” said Costa, who now attends Our Lady, Queen of Martyrs Parish in Woonsocket.

He said he has some memories of playing football and baseball with Elwood before he went off to war.

“Today is the greatest day for me in a long time,” Costa said of the opportunity he had to welcome his childhood friend home at last. “To see a guy come home that you’ve known and loved.”

Sister Euart said the family couldn’t have more pleased with the way the services for her uncle were conducted.

“The way this was handled by Rhode Island and by the Army, none of us can say enough of our expression of gratitude for this wonderful experience,” she said.

“While there is certain sadness at times for us because our parents were never able to experience this, we’re living it through them and yet it is such a celebration of life and family and trust in God. And Uncle Elwood, he had such deep faith.”

Euart