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More than 80 years after Pearl Harbor, Holyoke native is sent home for full military burial

Last November, Cheryl Quinn answered the phone in her kitchen. It was a Navy representative calling about her Uncle Merle Hillman, who died in the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The last time she'd heard from the Navy was 2011.

“I had gotten a letter from the Navy and they asked if I would send a DNA sample,” she said. “And I did. But after 12 years, I forgot about it. So when this call came, I was really, really in shock.”

Her son Brendan was in his room, watching TV.

“She walks in and she's crying,” he recalled. “I'm like, ‘Oh God, who's who passed away now?’ And she just said, ‘They found Uncle Merle. He's coming home.’”

Cheryl Quinn of Holyoke, Massachusetts, holds a photo of her uncle, Merle Hillman, who died at Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Karen Brown
/
NEPM
Cheryl Quinn of Holyoke, Massachusetts, holds a photo of her uncle, Merle Hillman, who died at Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Merle Hillman was a 25-year-old Pharmacist Mate Second Class aboard the USS California on December 7th, 1941. In all, more than 2400 military personnel died that day, including Hillman and a hundred others on his battleship.

His remains were buried in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific in Hawaii, among other unknown service members.

Cheryl Quinn, 73, a retired Yankee Candle technician, never met her uncle Merle. Her late father — Merle’s older brother — almost never mentioned him. Nor did Merle’s younger sister.

“I think it was painful for them because they were all very close in age,” Quinn said.

After that call, a Navy representative came to Quinn’s Holyoke, Massachusetts, home —which had once been Merle Hillman’s home — with a binder. It included information about his role in the military, the cemeteries where he’d been interred, plus personal details from his time in the Navy.

The binder also included photos of the bone fragments that were found, including Hillman's skull, which had a fracture and burn marks. That helped experts piece together how he died that day.

Records show the USS California was hit by two torpedoes, followed by a bomb. Quinn said the military believes Hillman was below deck, caring for those injured by the torpedoes, when the bomb hit.

A newspaper clipping of the USS California after it was attacked at Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Karen Brown
/
NEPM
A newspaper clipping of the USS California after it was attacked at Pearl Harbor in 1941.

“They think the bomb started a fire. And that probably was when he died,” she said.

The return of Hillman’s remains is part of a broader effort that began in 2015, when a forensic team began to exhume and identify bodies from several ships at Pearl Harbor, starting with almost 400 sailors from the USS Oklahoma.

Defense department spokesperson Sean Everette said they now use DNA analysis and other genealogical research.

“That whole process, from when we can recover a service member to when the the science part of it is done, can take years,” he said.

Everette said Merle Hillman is among five service members from the USS California who’ve been identified recently. Twenty are still considered missing.

“There are still sons and daughters or grandsons and granddaughters who had been wondering what happened to these service members for all this time,” he said.

Everette said about 80,000 service members remain missing from the Vietnam War, Korea and World War II, with the latter accounting for the vast majority. He said the effort to identify remains is not only about the promises made decades ago.

Brendan Quinn of Holyoke, Massachusetts, holds a photo of his great uncle, Merle Hillman, who died at Pearl Harbor.
Karen Brown
/
NEPM
Brendan Quinn of Holyoke, Massachusetts, holds a photo of his great uncle, Merle Hillman, who died at Pearl Harbor.

“But it's also a promise to those in the military or joining the military today — that if the line of duty calls on them to make the ultimate sacrifice, they won't be left behind,” he said. “Even if it's years later before we're able to come in and recover them and identify them, they won't be forgotten.”

That means a lot to Quinn’s son, Brendan, who joined the Army at 21, in large part because he’s always considered his great uncle Merle a military hero.

“Crazy enough, I joined two weeks before 9/11, so I didn't even know I was going to go in during a time of war, just like my uncle,” he said.

Brendan Quinn went on to serve in Iraq, where he lost friends in combat, so he understands the value of bringing remains home.

“My head is still spinning, to be honest with you,” he said, “because we never thought that this day would come.”

Once Brendan and Cheryl learned how Merle died, they wanted to learn what they could about his life. They went to the library and found a 1933 yearbook entry from Holyoke High School.

A 1933 Holyoke High School yearbook entry for Merle Hillman, which was found in the library by his niece, Cheryl Quinn.
Karen Brown
/
NEPM
A 1933 Holyoke High School yearbook entry for Merle Hillman, which was found in the library by his niece, Cheryl Quinn.

They learned his nickname was Mitch, he liked brushing his teeth, and he would often run around the school hallways.

But one line really struck them.

“It says, ‘Merle, it seems, will never grow up,’” Cheryl Quinn read from the entry, and then sighed.

“It seems like he didn't,” she said.

Quinn said her uncle’s homecoming is emotional but also bittersweet. While a number of his relatives, including three grandchildren, are still alive, everyone who knew him is already gone.

“My aunt and my father never got the closure,” she said. “But this generation is getting it. [We’re] getting the closure.”

Hillman’s remains arrived at Bradley International Airport Wednesday on an American Airlines flight.

On Saturday, at St. Jerome Cemetery in Holyoke, near the same plot as his brother and sister, Merle Hillman will be buried — with full military honors.

Updated: January 26, 2024 at 4:13 PM EST
This story was updated to include additional details with a national context.
Karen Brown is a radio and print journalist who focuses on health care, mental health, children’s issues, and other topics about the human condition. She has been a full-time radio reporter for NEPM since 1998.

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