By Cassady Rosenblum
Nearly 80 years after he was killed aboard the USS Oklahoma during the attacks at Pearl Harbor, Navy Patternmaker 1st Class Officer Stanislaw “Stanley” Drwall was finally laid to rest beside his mother and father at Mount Calvary Cemetery in Thomas, on August 5. He would have been 105 years old.
“Stanley, your mission on earth has been accomplished,” said Susan Whitlatch, Assistant State Captain of the West Virginia Patriot Guard as she addressed Drwall’s relatives, tears brimming in her eyes. “You were truly one of our American heroes.”
It took a massive degree of coordination and persistence to get Drwall’s remains home. For nearly three years after Pearl Harbor, the Navy worked to recover the remains of the soldiers who died in the attack, but some remained unidentified, and were eventually buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Later, the Navy exhumed those graves in order to identify soldiers based on family DNA samples, but was forced to nearly abandon the program in 2014 due to cost. According to Drwall’s nephew, Frank Proud, who took a train from Prescott, Arizona, to attend his uncle’s funeral, that “sort of sent the family into an obsession kick,” particularly, he said, his cousin Mary Ann Ryther, a surviving niece of Drwall’s.
Although Ryther was just a young girl when her uncle was killed, she had grown up living with his parents, two Polish immigrants who would also lose a second son in World War II. She described the day the family learned Drwall had been killed to the Tribune Chronicle thus:
“I was about 4 years old, and I can remember sitting next to my grandmother. She was holding a piece of paper in her hand, and she was crying. When you’re a little kid and you see your grandmother crying, I didn’t know what the paper was, but she was crying so it hurt me.”
Proud confirmed that losing two out of her three sons took a heavy toll on his grandmother, but that she was not one to dwell. “She wasn’t morbid,’ Proud said. “She got up, she said her prayers–Catholic prayers– then coffee, then aspirin.”
Mary also kept her sons’ memory alive in small ways, remembered Proud. “Stanley used to love these,” she would say to him as a boy, offering him a vine-ripened tomato.
All told, about 60 people attended the funeral, including at least five nieces and nephews of Drwall’s. Also present were The American Legion of Oakland, some Daughters of the American Revolution, the Tucker County girls’ volleyball team, and numerous veterans. Still other spectators like Ashely Archer– who drove six hours from of Massillon, Ohio–said she was simply hoping to give her children a first-hand glimpse of what sacrifice looks like.
The Navy provided full funeral honors, including six casket bearers, a trumpeter, folded flag, and rifle salute. They also paid for the funeral arrangements, and for the transportation of Drwall’s remains from Omaha, Nebraska– where his bones were first identified– to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.
In Pittsburgh, Gary Riggs, a retired warrant officer pilot and owner of the Country Roads Saloon in Thomas, was waiting on the tarmac to shepherd Drwall the last leg of the way home. In addition to being a friend of the family, Riggs is a former captain of The Patriot Guard Riders, a motorcycle brigade that originally formed in 2005 to protect fallen soldiers’ family members against the Westboro Baptist Church, a group whose members claim American soldiers died in Afghanistan and Iraq because America tolerates homosexuality. In the past, Westboro Baptists have shown up to heckle family funerals. Not on our watch, The Patriot Guard presence conveys, arms crossed in leather vests.
Riggs and a group of Patriot Guard Riders from Pennsylvania and West Virginia accompanied Drwall’s casket through torrential rain and lightning Wednesday night. During the harrowing ride, Riggs told the crowd assembled he’d had time to reflect on Drwall’s life in Tucker County, where Drwall was born in 1916. Riggs said he imagined Drwall must have had a happy childhood–going to school, swimming in the Blackwater River, hunting in the woods. “But he was also from a place that knew hard work and heartbreak, sacrifice and death,” Riggs noted, observing that prior to enlisting, Drywall had spent time in the mines. For that reason, continued Riggs, Drywall must have recognized the total darkness that enveloped him the morning the USS Oklahoma capsized, “Darkness only a coal miner would have been able to describe.”
As a Navy patternmaker, Drwall’s job was to carve from wood any mechanical piece his ship might need. Then, he would hand that finished product to a molder, who would cast the needed part in metal. Drwall, said Riggs, was good at his job. By the age of 25, he was already in charge of other officers.
For three days following the attack, said Riggs, Drwall and his fellow officers likely pounded on the hull of the USS Oklahoma, alive but unable to be rescued. As tears flowed freely in the crowd, Riggs concluded with a meditation on friendship.
“It is said soldiers do not die for the flag, apple pie, or even Mom.”
“They die for the soldier in the foxhole next to them.”
“That’s true for sailors, too.”