By PRISCILLA GREEAR, Special to the Bulletin | Published September 23, 2016
ATLANTA—Answering the call to duty, Army Capt. Elwood Euart never stopped climbing and lifting others up until his last breath in 1942. Upon escape from a sinking ship, he reentered and extended a rope to rescue trapped soldiers in the ultimate heroic sacrifice.
Serving as a troop carrier during World War II, the SS President Coolidge struck a mine after months at sea while approaching the Espiritu Santo military base in the southwest Pacific. One soldier was killed on impact. When the captain ran her aground and ordered troops to abandon ship, 4,998 men of the U.S. Army 43rd Infantry Division safely escaped.
But after determining that some were trapped in the infirmary, Capt. Euart, 28, reentered the ship through a sea door and lashed himself to the lower end of a rope, enabling six to climb to safety as the ship heavily listed. He then attempted to climb up the rope but drowned as the ship suddenly slid into the channel. For his heroism, the U.S. military awarded him posthumously the Distinguished Service Cross, the Purple Heart and Rhode Island Cross.
Now over 70 years later, his Atlanta family honored and lifted up the hero for all Americans after his remains were finally recovered from the protected wreck and war grave. They were transported on Aug. 27 with military escort from Hawaii via Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport to their final resting place in his birthplace of Rhode Island.
His niece, Linda Euart Kelleher, and nephew, John Euart, of Atlanta, and their families gathered alongside a Delta honor guard to salute the fallen soldier in the airport transfer ceremony. Their late father, John, was Capt. Euart’s younger brother and he and his wife, Evelyn, were members of Our Lady of the Assumption Church for over 50 years.
Capt. Euart’s spirit uplifted Kelleher, Euart and their siblings, Sister Sharon Euart, RSM, of Maryland, and Elwood Euart II, of Texas, as they reflected on his service and sacrifice.
“It was bringing closure to a story we had always grown up with, but it didn’t have an ending until now. It’s a beautiful ending. The whole story is inspirational and makes you want to live a life fashioned after his,” said Kelleher, an OLA parishioner.
“It’s an emotional experience and one we feel honored to be a part of and to know we had a true hero in our family. We had the opportunity to pay respects and to take him to where his parents are buried in Pawtucket, R.I., which was their wish.”
Capt. Euart was a devout Catholic, Eagle Scout and graduate of what became the University of Rhode Island where he ran track and was treasurer of the senior class. After graduation he was commissioned as a second lieutenant of field artillery. But above all “he was a humble, unselfish and generous person who was willing to sacrifice his life for others,” said Kelleher.
A hero’s memorial
For decades his remains were deemed unrecoverable, but about two years ago the family learned about the discovery after a professional diver reported a skeleton in the ship’s hull. In 2015 an Army team found the remains, even intact dog tags, and confirmed the identity through DNA testing.
Upon their arrival in Rhode Island, he received a hero’s memorial. The Providence Journal featured a front-page article and the governor, Pawtucket mayor and other dignitaries honored him at the wake. Capt. Euart’s remaining 11 nieces and nephews—his closest family—attended the funeral Mass Aug. 31 at the family’s St. Maria Goretti Church in Pawtucket followed by burial with full military honors.
John Euart and his wife, Susan, also brought four of their children and three granddaughters to the Atlanta airport ceremony where he watched his granddaughters place their hands on the casket.
“It was a very moving, wonderful feeling. It was a two-edged sword. It was happy to give honor and find the remains and also sad and emotional because you’re just reliving everything without (my father) being there,” said Euart, a member of the Cathedral of Christ the King. “Seven years ago my father passed away, one of his younger brothers. What I wish is he had been able to be there, all of the siblings and his parents, to be able to say goodbye.”
But through the memorials Sister Sharon felt their heavenly presence.
“It took 74 years, why now? That is the mystery of the way God worked and yet this was the moment when my uncle was brought home. That was the message in the media, the newspapers—the son of Rhode Island and a hero was brought home and laid to rest. It was beautiful,” she said. “When he did die in ‘42 it had to be overwhelming. We didn’t experience that this time. There was such a peacefulness to it, a sense of joy.”
“To imitate him” would be greatest tribute
The homilist, a chaplain from the same 43rd Infantry Division, read from a letter the chaplain aboard the Coolidge had written to Capt. Euart’s parents that described his daily Mass attendance and rectitude.
“The chaplain who celebrated Mass read a couple of excerpts from the homily, particularly about what actually happened and how my uncle was doing more than what his duty was and how his sacrifice had kind of instilled in everybody on the ship a spirit that would help all of them for the rest of their lives,” recalled Sister Sharon.
The Sister of Mercy was inspired by his courage to truly live his faith as a single man of only 28.
“His faith was a very strong part of who he was. With that he had internalized what it meant to care about other people in a way he was truly able to give up his life for others,” she reflected. “And what kind of grace of God did my uncle have at that time to know that is what he was being called to do? There was a lot of emotion in these days, a lot of prayer and spirituality, a lot of reminiscing.”
She wrote the Mass petitions in which she asked for “a spirit of compassion and courage that he showed in his life and that it will bring us some peace.”
“To imitate him would be perhaps the greatest tribute we could give him,” she said.
During the services, John Euart met a 90-year-old woman whose husband had served on the ship and a middle-aged man whose father did, which brought the story home for him.
“You have to ask yourself the question, would I have had the guts after having gotten safely off the ship, to go back on, knowing it was going to sink eventually? That’s a tough question, and it’s easy to say ‘oh yeah.’ But when you really sit down and think about it, how would I have been in that situation?”
At the cemetery, Euart, a Vietnam veteran, received the flag from the coffin. He will display it in a glass frame in his own home.
“He was truly a hero and received the second highest award that the Army gives for heroism. His story is one that will last for a long time. To think that the family thought it was fitting for me to receive the flag was the highest compliment and a great honor,” he said.