After 77 years of advocating, searching, fighting, hoping and praying, a north Alabama family will fulfill a mission that spanned four generations when the remains of Edgar David Gross return home to Limestone County on Memorial Day weekend.
“Uncle Ed is coming home. Every time I think about it, I get chills,” said Gross’ great-nephew Stephen Gross of Anniston. “He died 17 years before I was born, but my parents and grandparents, they instilled in us at an early age the story of Uncle Ed and to never forget and to keep fighting for him to come home.”
That fight began Dec. 7, 1941, when Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor and capsized the USS Oklahoma, killing 429 men, including Gross. Only 35 people on the ship were positively identified. The remaining unidentified marines and sailors were buried in mass graves labeled “UNKNOWNS” at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu.
Identifying the victims of one of the nation’s most historic tragedies would take more than seven decades as scientific advancements led to cutting-edge forensic technology.
“It means a lot that we finally get to bring him home," said Mae Daly, Gross’ 90-year-old niece, of Decatur. "He didn’t die for nothing. He gave his life for us, for all of us. We need to honor him."
A memorial service for U.S. Navy Water Tender 2nd Class Edgar Gross and a burial of his remains will take place, fittingly, on May 27, Memorial Day — a federal holiday designated for remembering those who died while serving in the armed forces. The service at Cherry Grove Baptist Church in Athens at 2 p.m. is open to the public.
“This is a time to pay our respects and honor him with dignity," said Sandy Thompson, director of the Alabama Veterans Museum and Archives in Athens. "He never had a proper burial over there. Honoring Edgar Gross as a hero is what it is all about."
Examining a more than century-old black-and-white photograph, Daly pointed to a young teenage boy surrounded by his cousins, uncles, aunts, parents and grandparents.
“That’s Uncle Ed right there,” Daly said. “They say I’m the oldest living relative now and the only one who remembers Uncle Ed. And I only have one memory of him. But I remember my mama talking about him, and I remember the day of the attacks on Pearl Harbor — the day he died.”
For the past 77 years, the story of Edgar Gross’ service and sacrifice lived on as his nine siblings told their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the boy who was born and raised in the west Limestone County community of Carriger in 1901, who enlisted in the Navy in 1922 and who joined the Navy Reserves in 1941.
“He had to lie about his age so he could come back because he was too old. He was 40,” Stephen Gross said. “The Navy has him listed as born in 1902, but everything I’ve got, other than the Navy records, said he was born in 1901. He lied about his age so he could serve his country.”
While Edgar Gross’ parents and siblings implored the younger generations to keep searching for a way to bring Gross home, those wishes remained unfulfilled for 70 years. But a phone call in 2011 from DeeDee King with the Department of Defense’s POW/MIA Accounting Agency renewed the family’s hope.
“She asked if I knew who Edgar David Gross was, asked if I would submit DNA and asked if I would help find two female members of the family for mitochondrial DNA,” said Stephen Gross, who contacted his cousins, Carolyn Warren, of Illinois, who died in 2015, and Emily McDonald, of Florence. “What we thought would be six to eight months turned into almost seven years.”
In April 2015, the deputy secretary of defense issued a memorandum for the disinterment of the unknown marines and sailors from the USS Oklahoma. Stephen Gross began attending the biannual POW/MIA meetings. There he saw photographs and videos from the exhumation and recovery site.
“They had a room that looked like a gym with folding tables out all over the entire floor. Each table had skeletal remains on them. There were hundreds of skulls and thousands of rib bones. It is a massive operation,” he said.
Since the operation began, scientists have identified 203 of the 388 formerly unknown remains on the USS Oklahoma.
On Sept. 7, 2018, the DPAA and Armed Forces Medical Examiner System identified Edgar Gross using mitochondrial DNA, dental and anthropological analysis.
“When I got the call telling me they identified Uncle Ed, the hair on the back of my neck stood up. It was an awesome day,” Stephen Gross said.
The remains of Edgar Gross will arrive at the Huntsville International Airport on Friday at 6:45 p.m. and travel to the Limestone Chapel Funeral Home in a procession led by the Patriot Guard Riders. A visitation on May 26, 1-5 p.m., will be open to the public. Members of Gross’s family will attend the Memorial Day program at Limestone County Event Center on May 27 at 11 a.m. A hearse carrying Gross’ remains will pass by the center at noon and lead the family to Cherry Grove Baptist Church, where the funeral will take place, with a burial at Evans Cemetery to follow.
“I hope the community comes out and supports the family. We are going to do a flag line following the Memorial Day service for Edgar Gross and his family. I want them to see what great community support we have for our veterans,” Thompson said.
More than 80 members of Edgar Gross’ family will attend the service.
“I have to pinch myself that this is actually happening. I get a chill every time I think about it. This is for all those family members, my grandparents, my mother, my father, my aunts, my uncles, that told us, ‘Don’t forget him. Keep him in your mind. He’ll come home one day.’ I guarantee there will be a lot of tears, not necessarily of sadness, but happiness and joy that Uncle Ed is home,” Stephen Gross said.