HOLYOKE — The City Council took a few moments opening its March 19 meeting to honor the family of Pharmacist’s Mate 2nd Class Merle Hillman, a native of Holyoke, who died aboard the USS California during Pearl Harbor.

The order filed by Councilor David Bartley was to recognize the family and Hillman’s legacy as he was finally brought home to Holyoke to be buried earlier this year on Jan. 27. Hillman was one of the 103 total casualties from the USS California and was buried in a grave marked as “unknown” at the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii.

“He wasn’t even drafted, he did it on his own,” Bartley said of Hillman’s enlistment back in 1937.

For years the Hillman family was not given closure, or knowledge if any of the bodies recovered from the fateful day were Hillman, largely in part due to the science available at the time and in following decades. That was until Quinn and her family received a letter in 2011 requesting DNA samples from family members in an attempt to identify some of the WWII remains.

“Next thing you know they got a letter last fall and it turns out to be Merle Hillman,” Bartley said of the DNA process that extended over a decade. “I was fortunate enough to attend the internment services which were incredible.”

In the late 1940s, members of the American Graves Registration Service began exhuming some remains of American casualties in an effort to identify them but could only identify 39 at the time. Hillman’s unidentified remains were then transferred to the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, where many unknown sailors from the Pearl Harbor attack were buried.

Hillman’s remains were buried at the cemetery until 2018, when Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, or DPAA, kicked up efforts to once again attempt to identify the unaccounted-for soldiers buried. The agency selected 25 remains form the Cemetery of the Pacific in 2018 and currently have been able to identify five, including Hillman’s.

“Now, definitely, this is closure,” Cheryl Quinn, niece of Hillman, told Reminder Publishing in January. “I feel bad, but I just keep saying I wish my dad and aunt were here to feel that closure, but I’m sure he’s with them somewhere.”

In council chambers to receive the recognition was Shannon, Cheryl and Brendan Quinn, all family members of Hillman’s.

“On behalf of my family I just want to thank everybody. This meant a lot to us,” said Brendan Quinn. “Having my uncle Merle home meant a lot, obviously. He was always my idol growing up. He made me want to join the military, so getting him home was just the icing on the cake.”