HOLYOKE — The 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor has lived on in American history as a defining moment on what it means to serve the country, and now over 80 years later a Holyoke native who died serving during this historic attack will have his remains brought home and laid to rest.

Pharmacist’s Mate 2nd Class Merle Hillman, a native of Holyoke, who died aboard the USS California during Pearl Harbor and was one of the 103 total casualties from the USS California, was brought home for his Jan. 27 burial three days prior thanks to police escort from Bradley International Airport for a current soldier, also from Holyoke, who told the family it was an honor to deliver Hillman home to be laid to rest.

“I asked him if he just happened to get this assignment or did, he see the name and the home town and ask about it? And he said he twisted a few arms to get that assignment,” Cheryl Quinn, niece of Hillman, said with a laugh. “He said to me, ‘I’m a Holyoke boy bringing home a Holyoke boy,’ and I just thought that was so nice and makes it so much more personal.”

Quinn said her father and aunt spoke very rarely about her uncle over the years but would mention him on the Dec. 7 anniversary, when the family would talk about what that day meant and the sacrifices of serving the nation.

“We all knew that he had died in Peal Harbor and that he was a hero but other than that, they did not talk about him,” Quinn said.

This led Quinn and her family to dig deeper to try and find out what they could about Hillman’s life before leaving Holyoke to serve. Quinn said they weren’t able to find much but did find his High School yearbook from 1933 that showed he had an interest in theater.

For years the Hillman family were 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.

Hillman was buried in a grave marked as “unknown,” which is a designation for the remains of U.S. service members that were unable to be identified as a specific individual at the time of their death. There were 25 associated unknowns buried at the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii out of the 103 total casualties from the USS California. Twenty of those casualties were designated unresolved casualties, which are individual service members known to have died in a particular incident, but for whom no remains have been recovered or identified, or missing in action.

Quinn said while this was a great opportunity to potentially identify her uncle’s remains and after her and another family member sent in a DNA sample. All they could do was wait. Eventually Quinn said they completely forgot about it until Nov. 1 of last year when, 12 years after submitting the DNA and out of the blue, the Hillman family received some great news.

“To say that was shocking is an understatement,” Quinn said.

Hillman, a sailor who enlisted in the Navy in 1937, was a second-class pharmacist’s mate at the time of his death, a position that had him serving medical assistance to patients. He was promoted four times while serving, climbing the ranks from seaman apprentice to hospital apprentice before finally becoming a pharmacist’s mate.

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 from the Cemetery of the Pacific in 2018 and currently have been able to identify five, including Hillman’s.

Quinn said the family was able to find some closure over the years due to knowing Hillman had died serving his country. It has left a connection that Quinn said her son has been able to make with their heroic ancestor.

The family made a trip to see the monument built to honor those who died in 1991 as well as the grave site and during the visit she took a photo of her son next to the monument. Years later, her son took his oath to serve in the Army reserve next to the same monument in Hawaii that was built to honor those who died, including his great uncle, and took a new photo next to the monument years later.

Now this update in identifying Hillman’s remains gives the family complete closure, knowing he will be laid to rest in his hometown.

“Now, definitely, this is closure,” Quinn said. “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.”

Quinn credited the advancements in technology as a big reason identifying her uncle’s remains was even made possible. Officials used a combination of DNA testing and dental records to identify Hillman.

The DPAA website also said that scientists used mitochondrial DNA and Y-chromosome analysis to link remains to soldiers who lost their lives.

Overall, Quin said she and the family are thankful for the community support received during this ongoing saga and is happy a hero such as Hillman will be getting the proper goodbye in his hometown.

“It’s so amazing, we’ve had so much interest from veteran’s groups and people around the city. It just makes me feel good that he’s finally coming home after 82 years and he’s going to get the burial that he so justly deserves because he certainly is a hero to all of us,” Quinn added.

As of print time, Hillman’s remains are scheduled to be buried at 11 a.m. on Jan. 27 in St. Jerome Cemetery in Holyoke with full military honors.