Gingerly rising from his seat in the Limestone County church, 98-year-old World War II Navy veteran Sherwin Callander raised his right hand and saluted the American flag-draped casket containing the remains of Edgar David Gross.
“Today is a day to honor my naval brother who gave his life, who gave his all, who paid the ultimate sacrifice, so that we can have freedom,” said Callander. “It is wonderful to finally have him home.”
On Memorial Day, more than 77 years after Gross’ death, a family, community and nation came out to say a final farewell to the World War II sailor killed in the Japanese attacks on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
“Years from now, many years from now, many, many years from now, you may be able to tell your children, your grandchildren, even your great-grandchildren, you were there when our country returned a fallen sailor to the red clay of north Alabama,” said Gross’ great-nephew Tom Gross. “It took a nation and a military that did not forget a sailor from humble roots.”
Hundreds lined the streets waving American flags as the hearse carrying Gross’ remains passed through downtown Athens to his childhood community of Carriger in west Limestone County. Along the procession route, people stood outside homes and churches. A whispered “welcome home” and “thank you” occasionally permeated the somber silence.
“Welcome home, Edgar! Thank you for your service,” the sign outside Salem Springs Baptist Church read as the procession passed by.
The funeral and burial of Edgar Gross is a testament to a family’s perseverance, a military that focused on honoring the dead and forensic DNA advancements unimaginable in the mid-20th century.
A water tender on the USS Oklahoma, the 40-year-old Gross, a Navy veteran who lied about his age in order to join the Naval Reserves, maintained the pumps and valves on one of the battleship’s 12 oil-fired boilers when the attack on Pearl Harbor began. Within 20 minutes of being hit by nine torpedoes, the Oklahoma capsized.
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.
For the past seven decades, the story of Edgar Gross’ service and sacrifice lived on in his nine siblings and their descendants.
“Finding Uncle Ed and bringing him back home is something my grandfather talked about my entire life,” said Gross' great-nephew Donnie Gross of Huntsville. “We are thrilled to have him back and so glad that when the opportunity arose to identify him, members of the family jumped at it.”
That opportunity came in 2011 when DeeDee King with the Department of Defense’s POW/MIA Accounting Agency called Edgar Gross’ great-nephew Stephen Gross of Anniston. To identify Edgar Gross’ remains, King said, the military needed DNA from Stephen Gross and two female relatives.
On Sept. 7, 2018, the DPAA and Armed Forces Medical Examiner System identified Edgar Gross using mitochondrial DNA, dental and anthropological analysis.
The remains of Edgar Gross arrived at the Huntsville International Airport on Friday and more than 300 people attended a visitation service for Gross on Sunday. On Monday, Limestone County's Memorial Day service paid tribute to Gross before the funeral service at Cherry Grove Baptist Church. A caisson transported the coffin to Gross' final burial space next to his father at Evans Cemetery.
More than 80 members of Gross’ family and hundreds of spectators attended the service. Among those in attendance was retired U.S. Marine Cpl. Gabriel Palacios.
"Today's the day to honor those who died for our country," said Palacios, who was wounded by an IED while serving in Afghanistan. "There is no other place I would rather be."
As Navy service members handed the folded American flag to Gross' family and thanked them for his service, a 21-gun salute filled the Limestone County air.
“While I never met Uncle Ed personally, I’ve always known Uncle Ed," Stephen Gross said. "He’s in my heart, his DNA is in me. Uncle Ed was real. Uncle Ed wasn’t just a name in a history book or a name on a page in somebody’s Bible.
“Seventy-seven years, five months and 20 days, he’s finally home. Welcome home, Uncle Ed. We love you. We’ve missed you.”