SEAFORD, Del. (AP) — The body of a Seaford man who was among the lost souls from World War II may finally be coming home this fall.
Delayed by the pandemic in 2020, a long-awaited homecoming for the remains of U.S. Army Air Force 2nd Lt. George M. Johnson is tentatively set for Oct. 2, with reinterment in Odd Fellows Cemetery in Seaford.
A full military ceremony with an honor guard procession is the hopeful conclusion for a roller-coaster story that went from Lt. Johnson’s missing-in-action status to a case of mistaken identity.
Details are in the early stages for the event, which may again be at the mercy of coronavirus restrictions, said Judi Thoroughgood of Millsboro, one of Lt. Johnson’s two closest surviving relatives.
“We’re going for it. If we have to postpone — we won’t say cancel — then that is what we will have to do. But we’ve got high hopes we’ll squeak this in without any more delays,” she said. “So it’s not totally set in stone. ... We don’t know for sure what we are working with, but we’re going for it. If we have to cancel it at the last minute, then that is what we’re going to do. But we’re hoping to squeeze this in before anything else happens.”
Ms. Thoroughgood and her cousin, Janet Starr DeCristofaro of Bergenfield, New Jersey, are the lieutenant’s nieces.
Lt. Johnson, a member of the 38th Bombardment Squadron’s 30th Bombardment Group, was one of 10 servicemen killed Jan. 21, 1944, when the B-24J bomber he was co-piloting crashed into Tarawa lagoon in the South Pacific shortly after takeoff.
Rescue crews recovered the remains of five individuals, but Lt. Johnson’s body was reportedly not among those recovered. The three identified sets of remains and two unidentified sets were interred in Cemetery 33 on Betio Island, one of several cemeteries established after the U.S. seized the island from the Japanese in November 1943.
In 2019, 75 years after the bomber crashed, Lt. Johnson was still listed as missing in action.
But in a bizarre twist of fate, the case became one of mistaken identity: Lt. Johnson’s remains had actually been stateside for some time, buried in a suburb of Buffalo, New York, in a grave thought to have contained the body of Staff Sgt. John Roland “Jack” Busch.
Clarity for the lieutenant’s family started back in 2017, when History Flight Inc., a nonprofit organization, partnered with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) to recover several coffins from Cemetery 33. These remains were sent to the DPAA laboratory at Hickam Air Force Base in Honolulu for identification.
Then, in April 2019, DPAA identified a set of those remains as Sgt. Busch’s. He had mistakenly been accounted for in 1946 and buried near Buffalo. Permission was granted by the Busch family to exhume the remains in New York for testing.
Those remains were determined to be associated with a set of remains from the History Flight burials. The two sets of remains were consolidated for further examination.
“When they did the DNA on the remains from Tarawa, they reidentified Jack Busch,” said Ms. Thoroughgood. “So the question was: If Jack Busch is here on Tarawa, who is (buried in) New York? So they got permission from the family to exhume (who was thought to be) Jack Busch, and they ran the DNA, and they found a partial of my uncle.”
On Dec. 12, 2019, DPAA announced that the remains of Lt. Johnson had been determined through DPAA and History Flight’s efforts.
Unfortunately, the pandemic put a hold on a homecoming, full military honors procession and burial in Odd Fellows Cemetery on May 8, 2020 — which would have been Lt. Johnson’s 100th birthday.
Meanwhile, his remains sit at Hickam Air Force Base, awaiting clearance for services.
“He is still there — at Hickam. They won’t bring him home until like days before the funeral,” Ms. Thoroughgood said. “We won’t know until seven to 10 days before the event what airport he is even coming into for the repatriation, for the dignified transfer.”
Jim Bowden, a childhood friend of Ms. Thoroughgood’s who has followed the Johnson story for some time through his Seaford history Facebook page, is hopeful there will be a huge, dignified ceremony. There is also a request to Gov. John Carney to have flags lowered to half-staff.
Plans through Melson Funeral Home will be finalized soon, Ms. Thoroughgood said. An early-afternoon event is scheduled, followed by a reception at American Legion Post 6 in Seaford.
Ms. Thoroughgood noted that her contact with History Flight informed her “that Tarawa families within probably a four- to four-and-a-half-hour radius will come for the service because they just believe in supporting their own. Of course, we don’t know how many people are going to attend.”
For years and years, Ms. Thoroughgood sought closure, as did Lt. Johnson’s mother, who passed away in 1984.
Ms. Thoroughgood said her grandmother wrote weekly to the military for several years, pleading with them to bring her son home. Her letter-writing campaign ceased when she was sternly discouraged by Army officials, Ms. Thoroughgood said.
Nevertheless, Lt. Johnson’s mother placed a marker in Odd Fellows for her son, hopeful he would come home one day.
“I think my grandmother probably put that marker there, even though he didn’t come home, in anticipation of him one day coming home,” said Ms. Thoroughgood. “I am just so glad he was identified and coming home. Even though I never met him, I always felt I knew him through my grandmother.”
Lt. Johnson, 23 at the time of his death, will be buried in the family plot in Odd Fellows — which includes his mother, Mary Alice Wheatley Johnson Tull, and his father, James Everett Johnson, as well as his sister.
“There is an open space, which was supposed to be for me, and then my daughter,” said Ms. Thoroughgood. “He is going to go where I was supposed to go — between his sister and great-niece. I’m just going to be on the outside.”
While the COVID-19 situation presents uncertainty, the hope is that Lt. Johnson will be coming home as planned in October.
“We’re going for it. I am not getting younger, and neither is Janet. We want to see this event. It just seems like it has been put off and put off, and now that they had finally started scheduling full military honors,” Ms. Thoroughgood said, “we are excited about bringing him home.”