LIMESTONE COUNTY, Ala. (WAFF) - It took decades for Edgar Gross’ family to get his remains identified and returned to Alabama and their efforts led to a heartfelt homecoming. On Memorial Day, hundreds turned out to honor him.
Athens and Limestone County paid tribute to all those who made the ultimate sacrifice for our country, including Gross.
His story was told to a crowd of hundreds as the Alabama Veterans Museum and Archives held a Memorial Day ceremony at the Limestone County Event Center.
After the event, a quiet reverence filled Pryor Street as the hearse carrying Gross passed by on its way to Cherry Grove Baptist Church for his funeral service, everyone waving flags and saluting as the procession went past.
At the church, veterans were on hand to bring his casket inside where many gathered to pay their respects.
“We’re actually living the dream of our parents and grandparents. I can’t tell you how many times I heard them say that they’d hope to see the day when Uncle Ed comes home. Today is that day,” said Stephen Gross about his great-uncle.
Water Tender 2nd Class Gross, a Limestone County native, was killed on the USS Oklahoma when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor.
Gross' remains were positively identified after an exhaustive search to match DNA with his relatives.
“It was a wonderful memorial service that we had today to honor all the fallen in Limestone County but a special opportunity to honor the family and all the loved ones of Edgar Gross. What a remarkable story,” said Athens Mayor Ronnie Marks.
“A very special homecoming for Water Tender 2 Edgar Gross who went down the with USS Oklahoma. His family finally got to bring his remains home and lay them to rest where they should be,” added Sandra Thompson, director of the Alabama Veterans Museum.
Gross was assigned to the battleship USS Oklahoma when the ship was attacked by the Japanese on Dec. 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.
The ship was struck by multiple torpedoes and capsized within minutes. The captain of the Oklahoma ordered the crew to abandon ship over the starboard side.
Those who escaped swam to the battleship USS Maryland or manned smaller boats and helped pull the wounded out of the water. Rescuers saved 32 sailors by cutting holes into the Oklahoma’s side.
Gross, who hailed from Limestone County’s Carriger community, was one of 415 Navy crew and 14 Marines who died on the Oklahoma. Of that number, about 394 — including Gross — were unidentified. They were buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific.
“It just goes to demonstrate the sacrifices that some people made, and others don’t. They have it easy and don’t appreciate what happened. That man was lost. He was in an unmarked grave for the unknowns and it’s just not right that we shouldn’t honor him,” said Jerry Barksdale, Retired Athens Attorney.
James Hickman, a local veteran, attended the Memorial Day events and explained that the USS Oklahoma was one of our first oil fired ships, so the water tender’s job was to keep cooling water coming to the engine of that battleship when it was underway.
“I think it’s absolutely terrific for the community and it’s certainly terrific for the Gross family. Can you imagine? Your loved one has fallen somewhere in battle and you have no body, nothing to bury. You can have a memorial service, but that doesn’t do it. It’s a wonderful thing that this young man has finally come home,” Hickman stated.
Stephen Gross never met his great uncle Edgar, but that didn't stop him from searching for answers or Edgar’s unidentified remains.
He was contacted by Dee Dee King, a genealogist for the Navy’s POW/MIA Department. She started working the case and doing DNA analysis.
"In 2009, the Navy started issuing me work orders for the USS Oklahoma. There were more than 320 cases that I'd work on in the next 3 years and in 2011, I contacted the Gross family," King said.
It took several years, but she put the puzzle together. The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency announced that the remains of Water Tender 2nd Class Edgar D. Gross of Athens had been positively identified.
King traveled from Texas to Alabama to be with Gross’ family for the funeral.
Many hope that DNA testing continues to bring closure to other families of those who lost their lives at Pearl Harbor.
“These are the guys who gave everything so that we could continue to prosper as a free and independent nation,” said James L. Walker, Retired LTC and ROTC Instructor.
Stephen Gross said he almost gave up hope with all of the roadblocks his family dealt with over the years, but his relatives finally got to see that Edgar received a respectful burial. They were appreciative of the public’s support.
“It’s just a testament to this community that a fallen son returns home after 77 years, 5 months and 20 days, that they’re welcoming us like they are,” Gross added.