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80 years after his death, a soldier killed at Pearl Harbor was given a military burial

AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

More than 80 years after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the remains of a western Massachusetts native were flown to his hometown last week for burial. He's the latest unknown service member to be identified in a yearslong forensic effort by the U.S. military. New England Public Media's Karen Brown has the story.

KAREN BROWN, BYLINE: Last November, Cheryl Quinn answered the phone in her Holyoke, Mass., kitchen. It was a Navy representative calling about her uncle, Merle Hillman, who was in the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. The last time she heard from the Navy was 2011.

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

BROWN: Her son, Brendan Quinn, was in his room watching TV.

BRENDAN QUINN: She walks in, and she's crying. I'm like, oh, God, who passed away now? And she just said, they found Uncle Merle. He's coming home.

BROWN: Merle Hillman was a 25-year-old pharmacist's mate second class aboard the USS California on December 7, 1941. In all, more than 2,400 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. Brendan is an Iraq War vet who joined the Army out of admiration for his great uncle. He says the family had long stopped hoping he would be found.

B QUINN: My head is still spinning, to be honest with you, 'cause I didn't - we never thought that this day would come.

BROWN: But in 2015, a Department of Defense forensic team began to exhume and identify remains from several ships at Pearl Harbor starting with almost 400 sailors from the USS Oklahoma. Military spokesperson Sean Everette says they use DNA analysis, dental records and other genealogical research.

SEAN EVERETTE: That whole process, from when we can recover a service member to when the science part of it is done, can take years.

BROWN: Everette says 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 says the effort to identify remains is not only about the promises made decades ago but also to those joining the military today.

EVERETTE: That if the line of duty calls on them to make the ultimate sacrifice, they won't be left behind. Even if it's years later, they won't be forgotten.

BROWN: Cheryl Quinn, who is 73, never met her Uncle Merle. Her late father and aunt, Merle's siblings, almost never mentioned him.

C QUINN: I think it was painful for them 'cause they were all very close in age.

BROWN: So she was grateful when, after that phone call, a Navy liaison brought a binder to her home with more details.

C QUINN: This is about, you know, where he was, the cemeteries. And there's some personal information. There's just...

BROWN: The binder includes a photo of the bone fragments they found, including burn marks, which helped the military piece together how he died that day.

C QUINN: The USS California was hit by two torpedoes and then one bomb.

BROWN: Quinn says they believe Hillman was below deck, caring for those injured by the torpedoes, when the bomb hit.

C QUINN: So they think the bomb started a fire, and, you know, that probably was when he died.

BROWN: Once Cheryl and her son 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. They learned his nickname was Mitch, and he liked to clown around in the hallways. But one line really struck them.

C QUINN: It says, Merle, it seems we'll never grow up. It seems like he didn't.

BROWN: Quinn says her uncle's homecoming is emotional but also bittersweet because everyone who knew him is already gone.

C QUINN: My aunt and my father never got the closure. But we're getting - this generation is getting it - is getting the closure.

BROWN: Merle Hillman's remains arrived in Holyoke last week. He was buried Saturday near his brother and sister with full military honors. For NPR News, I'm Karen Brown in Northampton, Mass.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERMANOS GUTIERREZ'S "FLORES") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Karen Brown