80 years after his death at Pearl Harbor, a sailor’s remains are returned home

Dec 12, 2023, 10:24 AM

The USS California is seen on fire at Pearl Harbor after the Japanese attack.
Mandatory Credit:	Fox...

The USS California is seen on fire at Pearl Harbor after the Japanese attack. Mandatory Credit: Fox Photos/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

(CNN) — Every December, Deb Conti’s grandmother would pull out the wrinkled letter and faded photograph she received from her brother just weeks before he was killed in Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor over 80 years ago.

“Dear ‘little’ Eve,” the letter reads. “I am thinking of the family, every day.”

The sailor, Stanley Galaszewski was a family man. Raised by a single mother after his father died, he was one of seven children.

Like millions of others, his family struggled during the Great Depression, and he joined the Navy in hopes of sending money home. Seaman 2nd Class Galaszewski was 29 years old when he died.

In Pictures: The attack on Pearl Harbor

In the letter, he talks of the beauty of the Hawaiian island of Oahu, and its modernity. He says he feels safe, being in the Pacific, and expresses optimism about what the future holds. Six weeks later, Pearl Harbor was attacked.

Identifying the sailors

On December 7, 1941, the USS California – the ship on which Galaszewski was serving – was hit by torpedoes.

After the war, workers recovered the remains of the 103 service personnel who perished in the attack but were unable to identify 25 of them. Twenty personnel were classified as unresolved casualties – people for whom no remains could be found.

“During World War II, the field of forensic anthropology was pretty new,” said Sean Everette, the media relations chief for the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.

“The doctors and scientists back then did everything they could and used every piece of knowledge they had to try to get these sailors identified, but unfortunately they just didn’t have the technology.”

In 2018, the agency began the process of identifying the remains of those killed on the USS California. The project came on the heels of the agency’s success identifying the remains of 362 of the 394 missing sailors from the USS Oklahoma – another ship heavily damaged in the Pearl Harbor attack.

It wasn’t a quick process. One of the challenges investigators face in such cases is that the remains collected in caskets are often comingled, requiring them to figure out which DNA belongs to which sailor. “The scientists have to go in and it’s like putting a puzzle together,” Everette said. “They have to determine which skeletal remains are all part of one person.”

In the case of Galaszewski, his relatives had already donated DNA samples in the early 2000s. With advances in technology, the team was able to easily find a DNA match for Galaszewski. “We were very lucky with Galaszewski because we had DNA reference samples from very close family members,” Everette said.

Learning the family history

Her childhood conversations with her grandmother seemed a distant memory when Conti got the phone call from the Navy. “At first, it doesn’t seem real,” she said. “You’re trying to piece together what the person is saying, and it’s an unexpected call.”

Conti later sat down for a two-hour briefing in which she learned about the USS California, the attack on Pearl Harbor and the role Galaszewski served in the Navy.

“The whole process was more emotional than I would have expected because I didn’t know him,” Conti said. “But I was honored I was able to do this for my family.”

Conti was presented with a choice: bring the remains of her relative home to Steubenville, Ohio, or rebury him in either Hawaii or Arlington National Cemetery.

In that moment, she knew immediately what her grandmother Eva Garrison, who passed away in 2002, would have wanted.

“My grandmother always said they wish they could’ve brought him home, and I just thought that was the best way to honor my family,” Conti said.

On the morning of October 31 this year, Conti and her sister arrived in Pittsburgh to receive the remains. In a twist of luck, the plot next to Galaszewski’s father was still available. “I just thought it was so touching that it was available, because that’s where they would have buried him had they had him 81 years ago,” Conti said.

Returning home

It was the bluest sky of November. Kids held hands on Sunset Boulevard and waved flags in greeting. Firetrucks waited in the distance as military personnel paid their respects. Steubenville had come together to welcome one of their own home.

On that day, after more than 80 years, Galaszewski was finally laid to rest.

Galaszewski’s nephew accepted folded flags from the military, and onlookers watched on as a bishop officiated the ceremony.

For Conti, one of the most touching moments was meeting a woman who’d driven out for the ceremony because her father was on the USS California and survived the attack on Pearl Harbor.

As Galaszewski was laid to rest, Conti thought about how her grandmother would be happy to know he was finally home.

“It was so sweet just knowing that someone who was born and raised in Steubenville, in a family of seven children, was being brought home.”

The-CNN-Wire™ & © 2023 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.

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80 years after his death at Pearl Harbor, a sailor’s remains are returned home