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Editor and Contributing Writer

Feature Photograph: Mary Lee Soileau, sister of Hillary Soileau, is presented with an American flag by her great nephew, U.S. Marine Captain Joseph Soileau during funeral ceremonies Saturday afternoon at Cedar Hill Cemetery in Washington, La. (Photograph by Freddie Herpin)

The alacrity of 21 ceremonial rifle shots echoed across an otherwise serene Cedar Hill Cemetery early Saturday afternoon as U.S. Army Pvt. Hillary Soileau was buried with graveside honors 79 years following his military departure from the nearby Whiteville community.“It’s taken a while, but (Soileau) has finally come home,” said U.S. Marine Capt. Joseph Soileau, who provided the eulogy before those who crowded into seats at Sibille Funeral Home.

Indeed the Saturday funeral service on Armed Forces Day at the historic Washington, La. Cemetery was the end of a nearly eight-decade journey for Soileau, who apparently died in combat at the head of a series of Guadalcanal Hills.

Soileau went unidentified until 2020 when military forensic analysts concluded the remains they had been testing for about a year were his. The military story for Soileau, which has gained national attention, is intriguing and complicated.

There is also mystery woven into the Soileau narrative, since military officials are uncertain about exactly how he died amid a series of hills named Galloping Horses.Since his probable combat death Jan. 14, 1943, Soileau has undergone two exhumations and three military burials.

Soileau was labeled by the military as Unknown-52 where he was buried on Guadalcanal in 1943 and again at an American military cemetery in Hawaii in 1947.

In 2019 Soileau was re-exhumed in Hawaii by a military forensic team for further identification testing. The Soileau family was notified Dec. 8, 2020, that the remains tested again using DNA, dental records and anthropological evidence was a positive match for Hilary Soileau.

Soileau returned to St. Landry late Wednesday after he was transported by commercial flight from Hawaii to Kenner, where his flagged-draped coffin was unloaded from an aircraft cargo hold and greeted by Joseph Soileau and Gregory Badeaux, both nephews of Hillary Soileau an a military honor guard.

A two-hour procession for Soileau followed from the airport to the Opelousas funeral home, where his arrival was covered by television cameras and print media.The sounds of graveside taps whose sound drifted solemnly across a gentle breeze, created tears in some family members who faced the casket.

Father Matthew Higginbotham, pastor of Immaculate Conception Church in Washington, said it’s hard to understand what the family felt as they watched Soileau leave for the military and then waited another three years before military officials in 1945 declared him killed in action.

“Think of what it was like for mom and dad and the family to say goodbye and send their family member off the war, not knowing what will become of him. What was it like for mom and dad to know that their son had been killed, but they still did not know where their son was,” Higginbotham asked in his funeral home homily.Higginbotham said Soileau’s story is finally obtaining the attention that he said it rightly deserves.

The remains of U.S. Army Pvt. Hillary Soileau are removed by a military honor guard from a hearse pulled by a motorcycle. (Photograph by Freddie Herpin.)

“The honor that is now being given (to Soileau) should be a national story and rightly so. Imagine his parents, living out the rest of their lives with that memory. We hope and trust and pay that now his parents know that identity missing for all these years is now revealed in the next world, no longer wondering where their son is,” Higginbotham added.

Nephew Joseph Soileau, a 17-year Marine veteran with a pair of Afghanistan combat tours, said the biggest fears soldiers have is being killed and not making it back home.“That’s why I think (Saturday) should be a celebration about all that it took to get (Hillary Soileau) back home.

Although it was not a vacation, he spent quite some time resting in Hawaii before arriving back here,” Soileau said in a remark that made many laugh.

Gregory Badeaux, who orchestrated the funeral services, said the episode of finally burying Hillary Soileau has made him appreciative of the job the military does in identifying those whose remains are unidentified.

Ironically Soileau said, the funeral services have also served as a catalyst for bringing his family closer together.

“I really have mixed emotions right now. I feel humble and I feel proud at the same time. Aloha, Hillary Soileau, like (Joseph Soileau) said, you’ve had quite a vacation. I guess this isn’t really a funeral when you’ve been buried three times,” Gregory Badeaux said.

Soileau’s last surviving sibling, Mary Soileau Badeaux, was presented with the American flag on Soileau’s coffin by Joseph Soileau, followed a folding procedure performed by the military honor guard.

Gregory Badeaux said the experience of planning his uncle’s funeral was both emotional and inspirational.“I learned that there are good people out there. That goes for the entire experience, I learned there are military people out there who really care,” Badeaux said during a Wednesday interview with St. Landry Now.