Norma Head started searching for her missing great-uncle in 1977, and found his resting place decades later in Merced.
Her father's uncle, seaman Harold C. Cochran, was buried Tuesday with military honors including a triple volley and playing of taps at the San Joaquin National Cemetery in Santa Nella after spending nearly 60 years in a cemetery in Merced.
"He's back where he belongs; he loved this area and I know he's happy," the Krum, Texas, resident said.
After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Cochran joined the United States Merchant Marines. During his three years of enlistment at sea during World War II, he lost contact with family. He died of a heart attack in 1953 at 45.
While doing genealogical research, Head found a letter from Cochran, who was then in San Francisco. She called him a "lonely man."
"He couldn't marry the sea, so that's when he decided to build a house next to the sea," Head said. "He was never married."
It is unclear why he left San Francisco for Merced.
Head placed family photos from over the years, pieces from her shell and rock collection and photos of horses in the casket with her great-uncle's remains.
The Merchant Marines during World War II included privately owned ships carrying military personnel. Rufus Hernandez, the Fresno-based commander of American Merchant Marine Veterans, said Cochran sailed out of New York most of his career and into "the most dangerous ocean in our world."
"The Atlantic Ocean (was) infested by German submarines," Hernandez said. "It was like suicide missions."
Hernandez and fellow veterans presented Head with the Merchant Marine flag. She also received an American flag from the United States Volunteers of America honor guard and keepsakes from the Merced County Sheriff's Department.
Sheriff Mark Pazin said records show Cochran's body remained unclaimed for 13 days after he died.
"Because there were no family or friends that would take charge of his body, he was placed in, basically, the indigent cemetery here in Merced County," Pazin said.
Though Cochran and Head never met, she said she grew to know him through his letters.
"I love him," Head said. "I wasn't even born when he died. So, to know that I've come to know him -- he was real to me.
"It's bittersweet, but we've done right by him."
Enterprise reporter Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 388-6562 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Enterprise reporter Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 388-6562 or by email at tmiller@losbanos enterprise.com.