Edgar D. Gross

Water Tender 2nd Class Edgar D. Gross

A family’s yearslong journey to reclaim the remains of a Limestone County man killed at Pearl Harbor took a significant step forward this week.

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency announced Friday the remains of Water Tender 2nd Class Edgar D. Gross of Athens have been positively identified. He 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, also known as the Punchbowl.

Friday’s news was welcome relief to Gross’ family because it closes the book on a mammoth effort to bring him back to Alabama.

“We never thought this would happen,” said Stephen Gross, a Calhoun County resident and nephew of Edgar Gross.

How it began

About seven years ago, Stephen, who is a staff photographer for The Anniston Star, received a call from the Navy because they had seen his name online.

“They couldn’t find any of (Edgar’s) relatives and asked if I would give a DNA sample,” he said.

Stephen’s DNA wouldn’t be enough to make a positive identification, however. He spent a few weeks tracking down other relatives in an effort to collect samples. It wasn’t easy, however.

“I’d call people and they’d hang up on me saying, ‘I’m not doing that,’” he said.

He was finally able to get DNA samples from females on Edgar Gross’ sister’s side of the family. One of those who contributed, Emily Warren, lives in Florence. Another relative was found in Illinois.

Scientists from DPAA and the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System ultimately used mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) analysis, dental and anthropological analysis and circumstantial evidence to identify Gross’ remains.

“This is something I’ve been involved with since day one,” Stephen Gross said, adding he had traveled to various POW/MIA events to provide updates on his family’s plight. He also was able to borrow some of his Uncle Ed’s memorabilia from the Alabama Veterans Museum and Archives in Athens.

“I wanted to be able to show them to my mother before she passed away,” he said, adding she died about a year ago.

The next step for the Gross family will be collect Uncle Ed’s remains and bring them home to Limestone County. The plan is to bury him in Evans Cemetery, near the intersection of Mary Davis Hollow and Gross roads. Gross Road is named after Edgar Gross.

Stephen Gross said the family would like to bury him Friday, Dec. 7, the 77th anniversary of Pearl Harbor.

Identifying the dead

Three years ago, the Pentagon ordered the disinterment of 388 sailors and Marines in an attempt to identify them. Threshold criteria for identifications included obtaining dental records and DNA samples from family members.

At least one other attempt was made to identify those who perished, though it was unsuccessful. From December 1941 to June 1944, Navy personnel recovered the remains of the deceased crew, which were subsequently interred in the Halawa and Nu’uanu cemeteries.

In September 1947, members of the American Graves Registration Service who were assigned to recover and identifying fallen U.S. personnel in the Pacific Theater disinterred the remains of U.S. casualties from the two cemeteries and transferred them to the Central Identification Laboratory at Schofield Barracks. The laboratory staff was only able to confirm the identifications of 35 men from the USS Oklahoma at that time.

The AGRS subsequently buried the unidentified remains in 46 plots at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu. In October 1949, a military board classified those who could not be identified as non-recoverable, including Gross.

For more on the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, visit https://bit.ly/2mzle9S.

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