'No Longer Unknown': Massachusetts Man Killed at Pearl Harbor Finally Comes Home

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A Naval honor guard carried PhM Merle Hillman to his burial, 82 years after he died in the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
A Naval honor guard carried PhM Merle Hillman to his burial Saturday, 82 years after he died in the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. (Dave Canton/TNS)

It had been a long time since Pharmacist’s Mate 2nd Class Merle Hillman had been in Holyoke, his hometown and the place where he spent his “growing up” years. Saturday, he came home.

An outsized American flag waved in the breeze of a cold day, held up by two Holyoke Fire Department aerial ladder trucks at the entrance to St. Jerome Cemetery, signaling this was not an ordinary day. Hillman was home after 82 years in a military cemetery under a stone that read “Unknown.”

Merle Hillman was home to be among family.

On Dec. 7, 1941, Hillman was aboard the USS California, a Tennessee-class battleship, as it lay at anchor in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Shortly after 7 a.m. attacking Japanese planes dropped bombs and launched torpedoes at the ships lined up. The California took hits from two torpedoes and one bomb that penetrated the deck and exploded several levels down, causing damage that would eventually sink it to the bottom of Pearl Harbor. The Navy said 104 men aboard were killed, 20 of those were unrecognizable and unidentifiable. Their remains were interred in the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific as unknowns.

In 2018, all 20 remains were disinterred and underwent DNA testing. Two women in the Hillman family, cousins Cheryl Quinn and Merle Korpi, were asked to submit samples of their DNA and between them a match was made. The unknown remains now had a name.

Korpi is among the closest relatives Merle Hillman has left. She was born in Holyoke one year after her uncle was killed. She carries his name but knows little else about him. There were no stories or family legends about Merle.

“No, it was all very secretive,” she said. “We had no idea about him. Just that he died at Pearl Harbor, and that was it. That’s all we knew.”

Quinn agreed with her cousin. She, too, grew up not knowing much about her uncle, except that he and his brother and sister were orphaned at an early age.

“All we knew was his mother died when he was 1 year old and he was raised by his grandmother,” Quinn said. “No one talked about him at all. We would remember him on the anniversary of Pearl Harbor, but my dad never wanted to talk about him. His sister never talked about him either.”

Quinn speculated that the three children were very close as kids, they were just two years apart, and losing Merle was hard for his siblings.

More than 100 people stood among the headstones of St. Jerome Cemetery in Holyoke Saturday, to say goodbye, or welcome home, depending on your perspective, to a man killed 82 years earlier. People who never met the man now stood to honor him and his commitment.

Hillman was laid to rest with full military honors. Several honor guards participated. The U.S. Navy flew in a formal honor guard complete with a rifle squad for the ceremony.

Members of the Patriot Guard Riders provided a motorcycle escort for the funeral procession and members ringed Hillman’s final resting place, each holding an American flag.

Capt. Mark Strait said the group was formed in reaction to the Westboro Baptist Church, which would disrupt veterans’ funeral ceremonies to attract attention. Patriot Guard members would line access to a funeral to prevent church members from approaching. Since the church was disbanded, Strait said the group now attended services for fallen veterans, providing escorts and honor guards.

Also on hand was the Massachusetts VFW Honor Guard.

The formal naval honor guard carried Hillman’s casket from a hearse to a spot among his family’s headstones. Following a brief clerical service, the honor guard members lifted the American flag from the casket, carefully folded it into a tight triangle and presented it to Rear Admiral Michael Van Poots, deputy commander of Submarine Forces in Norfolk, Virginia. He, in turn, presented the flag to the family.

“On behalf of the President of the United States, the United States Navy and a grateful nation,” he said.

Van Poots also handled a small cloth bag holding three shell casings from the 21-gun salute fired in Hillman’s honor. He said the casings represent the Navy’s three core values: Honor, courage and commitment.

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