ESSEX JUNCTION, Vt. (WPRI) — Paul Vallee knew of his Rhode Island uncle Elwood’s heroics through yellowed newspaper clippings, a handful of government documents and pictures that filled a five-inch-thick family binder.
“He was like a mythical character to us,” Vallee said.
Vallee had almost given up on meeting anyone who was there the fall day seven decades ago when his uncle saved a half dozen lives.
Then, in a local news report, he found out about 101-year-old Bill Busier — a neighbor 70 miles away.
“He smelled the same smells and he saw the same things,” Vallee said.
Army Captain Elwood Euart, the namesake of Pawtucket VFW Post 602, was 28 years old as his transport ship, the President Coolidge, cruised through the into a channel off the South Pacific island Espiritu Santo in October 1942.
The ship’s captain didn’t know two U.S mines were in the water and about to blow a hole in Coolidge’s hull.
A ship fireman was killed by one of the blasts, but the vessel was navigated onto a sandbar where 5,340 soldiers made it to shore.
‘The most amazing story I’ve ever heard‘
“Good morning,” Vallee said after walking into Busier’s living room.
Busier tried to stand to greet him.
“No, you stay right there,” Vallee said. “It’s a pleasure to meet you.”
While Busier didn’t know Euart, he brought Vallee back to 1942 with a description of what it felt like on the Coolidge.
“Of course, it was really leaning like that,” Busier said, holding his hand at an angle. “So we actually slid down the deck to the rail that was in the water.”
Euart would hear rumblings on shore about six men who were stuck in the infirmary. He gathered a couple shipmates and swam back through the oily water.
According to the website Military Times, Euart “lashed himself to the lower end of a rope,” with the other end tied to a ship stanchion.
The trapped men used the rope to climb up a sharply angled corridor, but moments after they were safe, the Coolidge went down and took Euart with it.
“Well, that’s the most amazing story I’ve ever heard,” Busier said, acknowledging he didn’t know the details of Euart’s heroics.
Busier, like Vallee and his family, was ecstatic to hear that his long-ago shipmate, whose remains were discovered by a scuba diver in 2012, finally made it home to Rhode Island, where he was buried with honors next to his parents in 2016.
“Can you imagine that long?” Busier said. “Seventy-four years.”
Meeting someone who lived through the shipwreck, who was actually there, helped add some perspective, making his uncle less mythical and more human.
“He’s a real live guy,” Vallee said to Busier. “He’s right here where he belongs.”
For Vallee, the heroic connection brought him back 70 years in a unique way.
“Right now,” he said, “I’m thinking that I was sitting with my uncle.”