CEDAR RAPIDS — Freedom Foundation Director Chuck Elias never met his uncle, William Shanahan Jr. Yet his family’s pain after Shanahan’s death aboard the USS Oklahoma during the Dec. 7, 1941, Pearl Harbor attack cast a shadow over every Christmas season since.
“Our family dreaded Dec. 7,” he said. “I don’t like the first week or two of (December). This dominated over our family forever.”
Now, Elias and his family are overjoyed Shanahan’s remains are finally coming home for a proper burial.
Shanahan — whose 101st birthday would have been Monday — was 23 years old when he died in the Japanese attack on the U.S. naval base. After 78 years of being classified as missing in action, Shanahan’s remains were officially identified May 31.
The U.S. Navy came July 12 to Cedar Rapids to hold a formal ceremony announcing the remains had been confirmed. Elias, a veteran himself and in charge of a nonprofit organization in Cedar Rapids that provides support to veterans, said he was proud of his aunt and Shanahan’s only living sibling, Mary Lou Shanahan Pierce, for coming to it and viewing pictures of the remains.
The family won’t receive Shanahan’s remains until Aug. 26. His funeral will be Sept. 3 at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church, with a burial following at Mount Calvary Cemetery.
Since 2015, the U.S. government has been working to positively identify all the unknown remains of those who died on the USS Oklahoma after it was struck by eight torpedoes.
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Pierce first was told her brother’s remains were identified back in February. Elias asked U.S. Sen. Joni Ernst to find out more information, as she’s helped him and the Freedom Foundation in the past. However, Ernst had to tell Elias that she learned the remains had been misidentified.
Then in May, this time Shanahan’s remains were positively identified. Pierce gave Elias control over the arrangements, Elias said, upset from months of not knowing if her brother’s remains had been found.
Elias has the original obituary of his uncle’s death, and copies of telegrams his grandparents received about Shanahan’s missing status and declaration of his death.
From a young age, Elias said, he saw how hard Shanahan’s death was on his family, especially for Florence Shanahan, his grandmother and Shanahan’s mother.
“It all wears on you after a while,” he said. “You just have to try to block it out.”
Elias recalled that one day when he was about 8 years old, his grandmother told him he wasn’t going to school. Instead, she wanted him to get dressed up and come with her to the Bishop’s Buffet that was then at the Lindale Mall. Elias said he was thrilled at the treat of a meal from the restaurant.
But his grandmother had asked him there to be at her side during a meeting of a chapter of the Gold Star Mothers, an organization for mothers who lost a child serving in the military.
Elias said he continued going to the meetings to support his grandmother, but the food never tasted quite as good after he witnessed the grieving mothers weep for their lost children.
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One comfort Shanahan’s mother had was that she was told Shanahan was going to Mass the morning of the attack, Elias said. He said she once told him she got through her son’s death by just “learning how to live with the pain.”
Even with the remains now identified and being returned, Elias said the experience is bittersweet, as there are still other veterans whose remains have yet to be identified.
“This December, we’ll have my uncle back,” he said. “But what about the rest of them?”
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