THORNTON, Colo. (KDVR) — It seems fitting that, when you’re trying to honor a hero who never gave up, you never give up.

“It’s been a long journey,” said Sam Sears, great-nephew of Sgt. Paul Palumbo of Las Animas County, who died in World War II.

“There almost are no words to describe the feeling. Something we’ve waited for, longed for, for all of my life,” said Marietta Sears, Palumbo’s niece, who was born a year after he died.

It seems perseverance runs in the family. For decades, the story of Palumbo’s World War II heroics was hidden away in an old piece of luggage.

“There’s this suitcase that’s just full of information, and all of a sudden you start saying, wait a minute, Silver Star? You know that’s not super common. And Purple Heart? So it’s like, I was wanting to know more about who he was,” Sam Sears said.

A black and white photo of a man in military uniform
Sgt. Paul Palumbo of Las Animas County, Colorado, died aboard a so-called “Hell Ship” in the Pacific in World War II. His body was never recovered, but a memorial service is being held in his honor on Sept. 7, 2023, at Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver, exactly 79 years after his death. (Photo courtesy of his family)

Colorado POW held on Japanese ‘hell ship’

When Sears and his sister, Joanna McTevia, started doing research on their uncle, they discovered page after scrapbook page filled with the back story of a Colorado hero never properly honored for his service.

“It just became like, now, we’re going to make it right,” McTevia told FOX31.

Palumbo grew up in Las Animas County, Colorado, and served in the Philippines early in World War II. He was taken prisoner of war after an attack by the Japanese and held as a POW for more than two brutal years. Then he was placed aboard a so-called “hell ship” named the Shinyo Maru.

“So essentially the ‘hell ships’ were Japanese merchant ships that were converted into prisoner passenger transports. They were unmarked and in the shipping lanes, United States submarines saw them as a target of opportunity. And so they often times would target them and sink them, unknowingly killing U.S. servicemen,” Sam Sears said.

An American service member, unwittingly killed by American service members. An especially tragic end for a soldier who’d already endured so much.

79 years later, a memorial in his honor

Palumbo’s body was never recovered from the ocean, and up until now, one of the only monuments bearing his name is nearly 8,000 miles from Colorado — in the Manila American Cemetery in the Philippines, where his name is one of the thousands etched onto the “Wall of the Missing.”

But now, he’s being honored a little closer to home.

“Finally, full military honors. On the 79th anniversary. He’s never been recognized,” McTevia said.

Thursday afternoon – exactly 79 years to the day after he was killed in action in World War II – a memorial service will be held in Palumbo’s honor at Fort Logan National Cemetery in Denver. His new headstone is already in place. And while he may not be there in body, his family knows he will be in spirit.

“I think there will be several there tomorrow who just want to honor him, which is amazing,” McTevia said.

“The family really had no closure at any time,” Marietta Sears said.

It took years of paperwork and loads of patience to make it happen. But if there’s one thing the family learned from the uncle they never even met, it’s perseverance.

“And honestly hope that other service members’ families can see a similar result. To just continue fighting the fight to have your family member recognized,” Sam Sears said.