The sounds of Taps cut mournfully through the solitude of sunny Cedar Hill Cemetery early Saturday afternoon as U.S. Army Private Hillary Soileau who died in combat 79 years ago returned to St. Landry Parish with full military graveside honors.
Military veterans stood at attention, removed their caps and saluted as a hearse pulled by a motorcycle roared up to the Washington, La. burial plot where Soileau’s sister and other relatives waited as an honor guard directed the short service about 15 miles from where Soileau left for the military in 1942.
It was actually the third burial since 1943 for Soileau, who was born in Bunkie and grew up in the rural Whiteville community.
Soileau according to military records was killed in World War II combat Jan. 14, 1943 during an engagement with Japanese troops on Guadalcanal as part of 25th Infantry Division support for the Marines who were initially outnumbered by a well-entrenched enemy.
His unidentified remains were buried Feb.3, 1943 on Guadalcanal, disinterred there five years later and reburied as an unknown killed in action at the National Memorial Cemetery of The Pacific in Hawaii before re-exhumation for further forensic analysis in 2019.
Although exactly how Soileau died remains undetermined, family members were notified Dec. 8, 2020 that Soileau’s remains had been positively identified and accounted for following extensive anthropological and DNA testing by military officials at Joint Base Pearl Harbor Hickam Hawaii.
Before the Saturday funeral procession left Sibille Funeral Home in Opelousas for Washington, Gregory Badeaux, nephew of Hillary Soileau, said he has gained respect for the effort U.S. military officials take to make sure all military personnel who die unidentified are eventually accounted for and brought home.
“This whole experience has brought about mixed emotions for me. For one thing bringing my uncle back to be buried here has brought our family closer together. In addition I feel both humble and proud at the same time,” said Badeaux, whose mother Mary Lee is the only surviving relative of Hillary Soileau.
During a funeral home homily Father Matthew Harrington, pastor of Immaculate Conception Catholic Church in Washington, told the large crowd in attendance that it must have been difficult for the Soileau family in 1942 when Hillary Soileau left his farm and entered the Army.
“We really cannot do enough to honor (Soileau). Today we are reminded that we are grateful for his family who watched as their son went off to war and then waited for him to come home. Think of all those years when his momma and daddy and his family after saying goodbye, did not know what had become of him,” Higginbotham said.
U.S. Marine Captain Joseph Soileau during his funeral home eulogy said it has been a long journey for Hillary Soileau who died amid some of the bloodiest fighting in the South Pacific, whose story and final ending has captured national attention.
The soldiers like Soileau, who fought on Guadalcanal in 1942 didn’t have it easy, said Joseph Soileau, who grew up in Port Barre.
“The Army was there to provide basically mop up duty, but they were outnumbered by the enemy. There was malaria. It was usually hot, the fighting was constant back and forth, and the troops there were running out of everything including ammunition and water,” Soileau added.
Joseph Soileau presented the American flag lying atop Soileau’s casket to Mary Soileau Badeaux before the end of the burial service.
Gregory Badeaux said during a previous Daily World interview that Hillary Soileau, whose body was discovered by a military search party at the head of a series of sloping hills designated as Galloping Horses, apparently lost his dog tags before entering combat for the final time.
After his body and that of another American soldier were recovered in the same vicinity military records indicate Soileau was labeled as Unknown-52 until about three years ago.
A new set of Army identification tags were eventually ordered for Soileau and they were there Saturday along with the name of the soldier to which they once belonged, ceremoniously placed on top of his casket.
This article originally appeared on Opelousas Daily World: Acadiana WWII soldier returned home to Louisiana for burial