NEWPORT TWP. — Leona Hotko still has the bicycle her Uncle Eddie paid for nearly eight decades ago.
Hotko also has several letters, postcards and photos of her favorite uncle who went off to war in 1940.
After nearly 77 years, Navy Seaman 1st Class Edward F. Slapikas, 26, of Wanamie, was accounted for on Sept. 5, 2017, and his remains will be buried June 9 in his hometown, which is a part of Newport Township.
“I was very close to him,” Hotko said Tuesday of Uncle Eddie. “We always wondered where he was. Now he is coming home and will be buried near his family.”
On Dec. 7, 1941, Slapikas was assigned to the battleship USS Oklahoma, which was moored at Ford Island, Pearl Harbor, when the ship was attacked by Japanese aircraft. The attack marked the U.S entry into World War II.
The USS Oklahoma sustained multiple torpedo hits, which caused it to quickly capsize. The attack on the ship resulted in the deaths of 429 crewmen, including Slapikas.
Hotko, who will turn 89 in June, said Slapikas was her favorite uncle. She said he sent her many letters while he was in the service and she always responded, but sometimes not as promptly as “Uncle Eddie” would have liked.
“He was always concerned about the family and how things were back home,” Hotko recalled. “He always told me to study hard and to be a good girl.”
Hotko’s mother and Seaman Slapikas were sister and brother.
“I feel good that they identified him through the DNA match,” Hotko said. “He will be buried at home, just a few feet from where he grew up in Wanamie.”
Hotko’s memories of her uncle are crystal clear, even though nearly 77 years have passed since they last corresponded. The Navy lists Slapikas as 26 when he was killed at Pearl Harbor — but his date of birth is recorded as Aug. 6, 1916, which would make him 25 at the time of his death. Hotko said she thought her uncle was 24 when he died.
As she sat at a table at the Tiffany Court at Kingston senior living center, Hotko displayed several letters from Slapikas.
“He wrote to me all the time,” she said. “And he sent me so many souvenirs and gifts.”
Slapikas also sent $30 to Hotko so she could get the bicycle she always wanted.
“He wrote to me that he would teach me to ride it when he got back home,” Hotko said.
The bicycle is in the basement in the building where Hotko lived, the same building that once housed her family’s business, Drozdowski Brothers Bakery. It closed in 1966.
“I remember when he gave me rides in his car,” she said with a smile. “I would sit in the rumble seat. Uncle Eddie liked animals, dog and cats, and he liked to go hunting and fishing.”
Hotko said the Navy was always on Slapikas’ mind. She said he built a model battleship that sat on a table in her grandmother’s home.
Hotko said two months before the attack on Pearl Harbor, Slapikas sent her a letter saying he couldn’t wait to come home. She said he was hearing reports of a Japanese attack coming soon.
‘Never forgotten him’
Hotko said she will be at the June 9 funeral. She said a cousin is coming in from Alabama, but she never met the man.
Hotko said she received a Christmas card from Slapikas in 1941, just two weeks after the family was notified he was killed.
“I thought he must be still alive — that it was all a mistake,” she said. “But I was only 12; I really didn’t understand.”
It’s not known exactly when the remains of Seaman Slapikas will arrive in Wanamie. He will be given a full military escort, and it’s expected several military organizations will attend the service.
“I don’t think Leona realizes how big this is,” funeral director Deborah Strish-Katra said.
Hotko said it’s been a long wait, but she is happy her uncle is coming home, bringing closure to decades of wondering and waiting. Slapikas’ parents, Frank and Ursula Slapikas, are buried in St. Mary’s Cemetery old section, Strish-Katra said. His father died in 1943; his mother in 1950. Strish-Katra said Slapikas had five brothers — Frank, Joseph, Anthony, Thomas, and John — and two sisters, Anne and Helen. All are deceased.
“I have always missed my uncle,” Hotko said. “I’ve never forgotten him.”
The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) announced earlier this month the remains of Slapikas are being returned to his family for burial.
The agency said from December 1941 to June 1944, Navy personnel recovered the remains of the crew, which were subsequently interred in the Halawa and Nu’uanu cemeteries.
Slapikas is the only person from Pennsylvania who has been identified from the USS Oklahoma project.
Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, more than 400,000 died during the war. There are 72,917 (approximately 26,000 assessed as possibly recoverable) still unaccounted for. Slapikas’ name is recorded on the Walls of the Missing at the Punchbowl Cemetery in Hawaii. A rosette will be placed next to his name to indicate he has been accounted for.
For additional information on the Defense Department’s mission to account for Americans who went missing while serving our country, go to www.dpaa.mil; www.facebook.com/dodpaa; or call 703-699-1420/1169.
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.