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Finally home: Funeral of 22-year-old man killed at Pearl Harbor gives 'a sense of closure'

By MATT PERKINS | St. Cloud Times, Minn. (Tribune News Service) | Published: July 29, 2017

Holdingford — For generations, there has been no closure for the family of Navy Fireman First Class Elmer Kerestes.

But that changed Saturday in Holdingford.

Kerestes was 22 years old when he was killed in action Dec. 7, 1941, while stationed aboard the USS Oklahoma in Pearl Harbor when the Japanese Empire attacked the United States by surprise. On Saturday, he was laid to rest next to his parents at his family's grave site at Highland Cemetery in Holdingford.

Hundreds of people gathered in the town of 711 people, and hundreds more lined the streets of the funeral's procession path, to pay tribute as Kerestes was buried with full military honors.

"There is absolutely a sense of closure," Janet Klug, niece of Kerestes, said. "It's been something we've been waiting for for so long."

Many of those gathered Saturday were descendants of Kerestes, traveling from as far away as New Mexico and Virginia.

Kerestes was one of the 429 crew members who died aboard the Oklahoma when Japanese torpedo planes capsized the battleship. There were another 1,177 deaths from the USS Arizona. In total, there were 2,402 U.S. deaths from the attack on Pearl Harbor.

In 2015, the U.S. Department of Defense ordered the remains of the Oklahoma's 35 unidentified service members to be exhumed and analyzed using DNA evidence.

That same year, Klug received a call from the Navy asking if she would want to know if her uncle's remains were identified.

"I told them of course I would, that's my Uncle Elmer," Klug said.

Klug said one of her cousins, a great-grandniece of Elmer, supplied the DNA used in the identification process.

Klug lives in Freeport, just six miles from her uncle's grave. The cemetery was Elmer's grandfather's farm in the 1800s, she said.

"I feel so blessed that we are able to find peace and bury him in the spot that has been waiting for him next to his parents," Klug said. "And I feel sad for all those that are still unidentified."

Bob Kerestes, of Rice, said he started his search for information about Elmer back in 2000.

"What I wanted was a graveside plaque," Kerestes said. "A military plaque, so that he would get a flag on Memorial Day at the cemetery in Holdingford. But the government would never allow them to do that because he was missing in action. Well, now he is listed as killed in action so they come forward with all the pomp and circumstance."

Holdingford Mayor Sue Marstein said the town was excited to see the return of a hometown hero. Marstein said a soldiers' shrine in the city bears four crosses that honor Kerestes and three other Holdingford natives who died in WWII, and the local VFW Post 5160 is named after Kerestes and another man.

"It's amazing to think of somebody coming home after all this time," Marstein said. "It goes to show that you're always thought of, prayed for and honored for giving your life to protect our country."

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©2017 the St. Cloud Times (St. Cloud, Minn.)

Visit the St. Cloud Times (St. Cloud, Minn.) at www.sctimes.com

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