Riverside resident Gretchen McCarthy was just a toddler when her uncle, Eugene Eberhardt, died. She had no memory of the 29-year-old from Chester, New Jersey, who had enlisted in the U.S. Navy and was a machinist’s mate first class aboard the battleship USS Oklahoma on Dec. 7, 1941.
But, even as a child, she sensed how his sudden death amid the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, triggering the U.S. entry into World War II, affected her family. Her mom, Annette, was Eugene’s older sister.
“It was so traumatic for the entire family,” said McCarthy, who at the time lived with her family in Abington, Pennsylvania. “There was just, all of a sudden, this sense of terrible loss, fear as a child, because you didn’t know where it came from, and a silence within the family.
“And my parents obviously were devastated.”
Earlier this year, Eberhardt’s relatives, including McCarthy, received word that DNA extracted from remains recovered from the USS Oklahoma in the years following the Pearl Harbor attack matched DNA samples provided by his relatives to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, which had been charged with accounting for the unidentified remains of fallen servicemen and women recovered from battle sites across the globe.
On Sept. 17, McCarthy, her sister Joan Roberts and other relatives will travel to Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia to lay Eugene Eberhardt to rest, this time for good, with full military honors.
“We feel very proud,” McCarthy said. “It’s a feeling he becomes real again, he becomes a walking, talking [person]. He’s coming through the door and the Eberhardt smile is going to return.”
Eberhardt went down with the USS Oklahoma, which was struck by several torpedoes, keeled over and then capsized within minutes, on the morning of Dec. 7, 1941. He was one of more than 400 sailors and Marines from the ship who perished during the Japanese raid on the U.S. fleet in Hawaii.
Two weeks later, the family received a telegram from the Navy informing them that Eberhardt was missing. Two months after that, a second telegram followed, saying Eberhardt couldn’t be found and was presumed dead.
Annually afterward, the Eberhardt clan would gather in Chester, New Jersey, on Memorial Day to toast Eugene’s memory, said McCarthy. As for Eugene himself, the family didn’t know what became of his remains.
What the family didn’t know was that between 1941 and 1944, the Navy had salvaged the wreck of the USS Oklahoma, recovered remains of crewmen killed in the Pearl Harbor attack and interred them in two cemeteries in Hawaii.
In 1947, the remains were disinterred from the two cemeteries as part of an effort to identify the fallen. At that time, only 35 from the Oklahoma were identified. The rest were buried at the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu in 1949, with the unidentified remains, including Eberhardt’s, designated as “unrecoverable.”
Out of the blue, in 2011, according to a Boston Globe article from that time, McCarthy’s sister, Joan, got a call from a forensic genealogist, asking if she’d be willing to provide a DNA sample, because there was a chance it could match remains at the cemetery in Honolulu.
In 2015, the deputy secretary of defense directed the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency to exhume and analyze the remains of those associated with the USS Oklahoma.
On Jan. 25, 2019, the DPAA publicly announced that Eugene Eberhardt was accounted for via DNA testing and contacted the family to begin arranging for him to be buried at a cemetery of the family’s choosing.
By March, the DPAA reported that its scientists had identified 200 of the more than 390 Sailors and Marines unaccounted for since 1949.
It’s the second time in recent years that the DPAA has identified the remains of a fallen serviceman with local ties.
In 2018, the agency announced it had identified the remains of U.S. Marine Technical Sgt. Harry “Bud” Carlsen, 31, a Brookfield native who was killed in 1943 on the first day of the Battle of Tarawa in the Central Pacific.
DNA provided by a niece proved to be key in identifying the remains, some of which had been interred at the National Cemetery of the Pacific since 1949 and some of which were exhumed from the site of a former Marine cemetery on Betio Island in the Tarawa Atoll in 2013.
Carlsen was buried at Abraham Lincoln National Cemetery last October.