Family

Full Military Honors at Last

Beloved son, brother, and hero is finally brought home 73 years after his service to our nation

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A rosary ring and a few other religious items are finally home — treasured by the family members of a beloved son, brother, and hero killed in World War II. The brave and dedicated service member was laid to rest this week with full military honors, 73 years after he gave his life for his country.

Marine PFC James Johnson, 2nd Marine Division — known to all as Jimmy — was just 19 when he was killed in 1943 on the Tarawa Atoll in the central Pacific Ocean. Tarawa sits amidst a vast swath of water as far as the eye can see, and is about 193 square miles in total. The baby of the family, Johnson left behind two older siblings, Eleanor and Bill, who are now deceased as well, when he went to war.

A bugler played “Taps,” and a 21-gun salute rang out over the rows of white graves as a country said “thank you,” and a family said goodbye.

Originally from Poughkeepsie, New York, Johnson was among the first killed in a November 1943 amphibious landing on the island of Bieto on the southern end of Tarawa, which was then Japanese-held territory. The Marines took the atoll, but at a grave cost — nearly 1,000 servicemen, including Jimmy, were killed in an intense 76-hour battle. Afterward, their remains were buried by their brothers-in-arms — a world away from family and home. Many were buried unidentified.

Then, about a decade ago, a nephew of Johnson’s — who is also his namesake — started researching the fate of the uncle he never knew.

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“Eight years ago, Johnson’s nephew, Jim Johnson, approached me and asked for assistance in research related to his uncle, and so we began that together,” Mark Noah, executive director of History Flight, told LifeZette. History Flight is a nonprofit organization dedicated to recovering and repatriating America’s war dead to American soil.

A year before Johnson’s call, History Flight began researching the records of the Battle of Tarawa to see how the group might help in recovery efforts. “Jim said, ‘I’d like to come meet you sometime,’ to which I replied, ‘Well, I live in Big Pine Key in Florida.’ And he replied, ‘I do, too!'”

Turns out the two men on a mission were a scant mile or so away from each other. “It’s a small world, and it was a funny moment for both of us,” Noah recalled.

[lz_infobox]What is remarkable is the sheer number of heroic dead still unaccounted for. “There are 78,000 still missing from World War II,” said Mark Noah of History Flight. “There are 88,000 still missing from all the conflicts of the 20th century. That’s a huge number.”[/lz_infobox]

It took eight years for Johnson’s hope of finding his uncle’s body to be realized. Jim Johnson told USA Today his father never talked much about his little brother.

“Last summer we were fortunate enough to do the recovery of his uncle,” said Noah. “We worked out there for years to find him — we’ve recovered a lot of Marines at Tarawa. I called James when I got back to the States and told him we’d found him. Through our lab on site, we were able to discern that this was his uncle, based on his teeth and on a military plot map that listed his location. He was in the correct numbered grave — he was buried in an actual graveyard.”

Johnson was part of a group of deceased soldiers buried under an asphalt parking lot in what was simply listed in military records as “Cemetery 27.” History Flight used ground-penetrating radar and the guidance of local residents to find the old cemetery beneath the pavement. Roads and airstrips were hastily repaired by Navy construction crews after the battle —and graves were obscured during the repairs.

History Flight is assisted by the DPAA (Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency) in its work to identify and return the remains of those who died in battle. “We have a couple of contracts working with the government in this process — a collaborative relationship with DPAA, and they’re doing a great job. They identified all of the 35 Marines we recovered last summer, and we’re very happy about that.”

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History Flight has so far recovered the remains of over 100 service members from the Tarawa Atoll, including the 35 Marines.

The Johnson family requested that their loved one be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. The younger Jim Johnson is a Vietnam combat veteran, and his mother was a World War II army nurse who is also interred at Arlington, according to USA Today.

On Tuesday, the military honored this request — and Pvc. James “Jimmy” Johnson was laid to rest surrounded by family and friends as a Marine Corps band played the Marines Hymn. A bugler then played a solemn “Taps,” and a 21-gun salute rang out over the rows of white graves as a country said “thank you” and a family said goodbye.

And Noah saw a fitting end to his mission for his friend. “I was there, and it was awesome,” he said.

Of History Flight’s own mission, Noah said, “It’s an important type of service to deliver to the country and we’re very gratified to be a part of the process. There’s a lifetime’s worth of work on that atoll, and I’ll be doing it my whole life.” Noah volunteers his time in leading the organization, and is also a pilot for UPS. History Flight is a 501(c)(3) charity; it depends on donations to continue its work.

For many, the return of a family member’s remains is still a dream. “You’d be surprised at how many siblings and children of these missing servicemen are still alive today — more than half of them still have family alive,” said Noah. “That’s remarkable.”

What is also remarkable is the sheer number of heroic dead still unaccounted for. “There are 78,000 still missing from World War II,” said Noah. “There are 88,000 still missing from all the conflicts of the 20th century. That’s a huge number.”

The same day Johnson was buried, the DPAA announced four more official Tarawa identifications: Pfc. Charles E. Oetjen, U.S. Marine Corps.; Pfc. James F. Mansfield, U.S. Marine Corps.; Pvt. Harry K. Tye, U.S. Marine Corps.; and Pfc. Roland E. Schaede, U.S. Marine Corps. The funerals of the other 35 recovered deceased from the Tarawa Atoll will occur this summer, all across the United States.

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