80 years after his death, Medal of Honor recipient laid to rest in Michigan hometown
Charlotte — Nearly 80 years after his death, Ensign Francis Flaherty was finally laid to rest in his hometown.
The Charlotte native died during the bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. He was on the U.S.S. Oklahoma, which was hit several times by torpedoes and began to capsize. Flaherty remained on the ship as others escaped, holding a flashlight so others could find their way out.
His actions meant he was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor, the United States' highest honor for military valor in action. Later, everything from a destroyer escort ship (the U.S.S. Flaherty) to a stretch of highway running through Charlotte was named in his honor.
And on Saturday, he was honored with a procession through town, where dozens of people lined the route waving flags, and a burial at Maple Hill Cemetery.
"His great effort prevented additional loss of life at his own peril,” said Rear Admiral Jeff Spivey, who spoke graveside, of Flaherty's actions on the U.S.S. Oklahoma. “On that day, 429 men died — he prevented it from being perhaps 430.”
Flaherty was initially buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii. In 2019, the Navy was able to identify his remains with help from DNA analysis.
His family made the decision to bring Flaherty home to Charlotte, where he was laid to rest between the graves of his parents Francis and Gertrude.
Hundreds of people attended the graveside service to honor Flaherty, which included a military flyover and a sermon from the Rev. Dwight Ezop, the pastor who works in the parish that would have been Flaherty's today.
That included dozens of American Legion Riders who joined the procession from the funeral home to the cemetery and several dozen people who attended a memorial program the VFW Post 2406 in Charlotte afterward. Attendees included Flaherty's family, several members of the Charlotte community and state Sen. Tom Barrett.
Also in attendance was 99-year-old Herbert Elfring, a Jackson man believed to be Michigan's last Pearl Harbor survivor. He told The News he was honored to be invited to the memorial service.
"It means an awful lot to be in the same category as someone recognized as tremendously as (Flaherty)," Elfring said. "Just mentioning the date of Dec. 7 brings back memories, but this is a nice thing to be part of."
At the memorial program, Don Colizzi, who helped to raise $20,000 in 2000 to erect a memorial in honor of Flaherty and the town's other Medal of Honor winner, gave a eulogy for Flaherty.
Colizzi spoke of Flaherty "as a regular all-American type" when he was growing up. Flaherty was involved in everything from Boy Scouts to the football team to the high school yearbook. He went to the University of Michigan.
He was remembered as a dedicated brother and a good friend, someone committed fully to whatever it was he was doing.
"Francis was one of America's first heroes during the opening hours of World War II," he said. "His bravery was deliberate, and reminds us the real heroes are people who help other people, sometimes at the risk or expense of their own lives."
John Flaherty, the ensign's 79-year-old nephew, thanked the people of Charlotte for showing up to honor his uncle. Even beyond the ceremony, he pointed to the memorial outside the Eaton County Courthouse, honoring both Flaherty and Michael Hudson, a Medal of Honor winner who settled in Charlotte and is buried in the same cemetery as Flaherty.
"It seems like just the entire town of Charlotte was lined along the streets to bring him home," John said. "We cannot thank you all enough."