Cheryl Hillman Quinn never had the chance to know her uncle Merle Hillman.
“I did know that he had died at Pearl Harbor, but I was born nine years after he died, so I never met him,” said Quinn.
Pharmacist’s Mate 2nd Class Merle Hillman served on the USS California, one of seven ships sunk in the surprise attack by Japanese forces on Dec. 7, 1941. More than 2,300 American service members were killed that day, including Hillman, but about half of those casualties have never had remains identified.
Now, more than 80 years later, Hillman will be laid to rest on Saturday in Holyoke, thanks to DNA analysis of remains exhumed from graves of unknown service members. His identification is part of a Navy project, beginning in 2015, to exhume caskets of unknown service members killed at Pearl Harbor to try to identify them using DNA analysis and other tools.
Quinn says never having those remains to bury was hard on her father and aunt. She said, when she was growing up, they never talked about their younger brother.
“Their mother died when Merle was only a year old, and they were raised by their grandmother,” she said. “They had a hard life, and then this happened on top of it. It was just hard for them to talk about emotional things like that.”
“I just wish during their lifetime that they had been given that closure.”Cheryl Hillman Quinn
About 10 years ago, Quinn said she got a letter from the U.S. Navy asking if she would submit a DNA sample. She did, and so did a cousin.
“Never heard another word until November 1st. I got a phone call from the Navy saying that my uncle’s remains had been identified,” she said.
The call was a shock. At first, Quinn thought it must be some kind of scam.
“But then as I spoke more with the people from the Navy, I knew that it actually was legitimate,” she said. “And they came and met with us on December 7th. They met with my son and I.”
It had been, coincidentally, 82 years to the day after her uncle’s death when representatives from the Navy came to talk about his burial.
“As those service members raised their right hand and swore an oath to do their duty to their country, one of the promises that the country makes to them is to do everything they can to not leave them behind,” said Sean Everette of the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency.
In 2018, the agency exhumed remains of unknown service members buried in Hawaii that died on the USS California, a battleship that was stuck by torpedoes and bombs during the attack.
“It was five or six caskets, but within those five or six caskets there were remains of 25 service members,” Everette said.
So far, they’ve been able to identify four of them. One was Hillman.
“Once the analysis was done of his DNA, we were able to match that DNA up with his family,” Everette said.
Hillman is one of 306 service members from Pearl Harbor whose remains have been identified since 2015.
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As a Pharmacist’s Mate 2nd Class, Hillman would have had a wide range of responsibilities.
“Nursing tasks, dispensing medications, rendering medical assistance. Some of them even did, like ENT — ear, nose and throat — surgeries as assistants,” said Captain Jeff Draude, the director of Navy Casualty.
It was Draude’s team that collected the DNA from Hillman’s family and then reached out once the identification was made. Families are provided with a range of burial options, he said — from national cemeteries like Arlington, to a family plot, to returning him to where he’d been buried in the Pacific.
Quinn opted to bring her uncle home to Holyoke.
“I just figured that he’s been gone for 82 years. I want him home with his family because his sister is buried not too far from my father. So, the three of them are going to be in the same area again,” Quinn said.
That's who she'll be thinking about this weekend as her uncle is laid to rest with full military honors.
“I just wish during their lifetime that they had been given that closure that he was found and he was identified, and that he's going to come home and he's going to be buried,” she said. “Finally, the next generation is going to get the closure.”
The military’s continuing to work on identifying casualties from Pearl Harbor. More than 1,100 hundred service members who died that day still don’t have identified remains.