NEWPORT TWP. — Nearly 80 years after she last saw him, Leona Hotko said a final farewell to her favorite uncle Saturday morning.
“I’m glad he’s finally home,” said Hotko, 88, holding the folded American flag from Navy Seaman 1st Class Edward F. Slapikas’ casket.
“I feel a sense of peace knowing that he is at rest.”
Slapikas, 26, was assigned to the battleship USS Oklahoma. It was moored at Ford Island, Pearl Harbor, when the ship was attacked by Japanese aircraft on Dec. 7, 1941, resulting in America’s entry into World War II.
His remains were identified through DNA testing last year, and the Wanamie native was returned to his hometown Saturday for burial, 76 years after dying for his country on the date that will live in infamy.
As the hearse carrying his flag-draped casket made its way through Wanamie and Glen Lyon, residents stood along the road waving flags and holding signs — “Welcome home Eddie,” one said — while the Stars and Stripes hung proudly outside many homes.
A Mass of Christian Burial was held in Holy Spirit/St. Adalbert’s Parish, 31 S. Market St., Glen Lyon, with the Rev. Louis Kaminski officiating. Interment and full military services followed in St. Mary’s Cemetery, Wanamie, where the sailor’s parents, Frank and Ursula Slapikas, are buried in the old section.
The only surviving family members attending Saturday were Hotko, a Kingston resident who will turn 89 on June 22; and a nephew, Frank Slapikas, 80, of Tuscaloosa, Ala.
But that didn’t stop hundreds of people who never knew Slapikas from turning out to salute him.
U.S. Navy Rear Adm. Mark Fung headed a large naval contingent that escorted Slapikas into the church and to his final resting place. There was a 21-gun salute before the flag was taken from his casket, folded and presented to the family at graveside.
‘Solid American people’
Frank Slapikas said he and wife Barbara were overwhelmed to see all of the support from the people of Newport Township.
“It shows us that there are an awful lot of good, patriotic people left in this country,” he said. “They are good, solid American people.”
State Rep. Gerald Mullery, who lives in and represents the township — of which Wanamie is a part — was pleased to see the show of patriotism for Slapikas.
“Newport Township showed their patriotic spirit today,” Mullery said. “It was heartwarming to see so many residents line the funeral procession route to pay tribute.”
Mullery said families of those serving in harm’s way want to know their loved ones are safe, that they are thinking about them, that they miss them.
“But ultimately, they want them to return home,” he said. “Our military serving abroad are not just protecting the ideals of America — freedom, liberty, and truth — they are also protecting their homeland with the goal of returning home safely.”
Mullery said Slapikas paid the ultimate sacrifice in defense of our nation.
“Today, we had the opportunity to thank him and his family for his service and afford him the respect and tribute he and they deserved,” Mullery said.
Hotko’s mother was Slapikas’ sister. She remembers her uncle vividly, as well as the letters he sent while away in the service.
His last message, a Christmas card, arrived two weeks after the family was notified of his death.
Frank Slapikas said he was just 3 when his uncle died at Pearl Harbor. He said he only knew about Slapikas through his father, Frank, and his father’s brothers.
“I can remember sitting on our porch and listening to all the brothers tell stories about Uncle Eddie,” Slapikas said. “Even though I didn’t know him, I felt I should be here today for him.”
Vern Treat, of Glen Lyon, said he considers himself a naval historian. He said he purchased a hat with USS Oklahoma on it and presented it to Mrs. Hotko. Treat said Newport Township showed it was proud of Slapikas.
“When people look at Newport Township, they sometimes think it’s a run-down, dilapidated town,” Treat said. “I like to look at the town’s history and its people, like Seaman Slapikas who gave his life for us. This is a huge honor for him to come home and for his hometown to turn out and show their respect.”
Steve Phillips, a 1959 graduate of Newport High School, said he wanted to attend Slapikas’ funeral to show his respect for the hometown hero. Phillips said another Newport Township native, Keith Jeffries, was entombed on the USS Arizona. Phillips said he hopes Jeffries could come home some day as well.
Funeral Director Deborah Strish-Katra ended the ceremony at the cemetery with a brief statement. After thanking everyone for attending, she said:
“This is a sad story that has a gratifying ending. Seaman 1st Class Edward F. Slapikas is finally home.”
Reach Bill O’Boyle at 570-991-6118 or on Twitter @TLBillOBoyle.