After 76 years, missing pilot from Seaford identified

U.S. Army Air Corps 2nd Lt. George M. Johnson was reported missing in 1944. Submitted photos

SEAFORD — Seaford native George M. Johnson, one of America’s long lost souls from World War II, is finally coming home.

Exactly when, remains to be seen. COVID-19 has it and the world in limbo.

Seventy-six years after the bomber he was co-piloting crashed after takeoff from Tarawa during America’s island-hopping campaign in the South Pacific Theatre, Lt. Johnson is no longer unaccounted for and listed as “Missing in Action.”

On Dec. 12, 2019 the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) announced the remains of U.S. Army Air Force 2nd Lt. George M. Johnson had been identified through efforts of DPAA and History Flight, Inc.

Magnifying the incredible story is a case of mistaken identity: Lt. Johnson has been stateside for some time, buried in a northern suburb of Buffalo, New York in a grave thought to have the remains of Staff Sgt. John Roland “Jack” Busch.

“If DNA had been probably as good as it is today back in 1946 to 1948, my uncle would have been back in Seaford all this time,” said Millsboro resident Judi Thoroughgood, one of Lt. Johnson’s two nieces, the closest of his four surviving relatives. “Instead, he has been peacefully lying up in a park in Tonawanda.”

Seaford native Jim Bowden, a childhood friend of Ms. Thoroughgood, has followed Lt. Johnson’s history for some time on his Seaford Facebook history page. “What a twist of fate. Isn’t that amazing,” Mr. Bowden said.

The son of James Everett Johnson and Mary Alice Wheatley Johnson (Tull), Lt. Johnson was 23.

Unfortunately, his long-awaited homecoming and service with full military honors, honor guard procession, flyover and burial in Seaford’s Odd Fellows Cemetery planned for May 8 is on hold indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Lt. Johnson’s nearly complete remains remain in Honolulu, Hawaii at Hickam Air Force Base, awaiting clearance for the services.

“We were supposed to have a funeral and were planning it for May 8,” said Ms. Thoroughgood. “That would have been my uncle’s 100th birthday.”

Word from Casualty Office on March 18 is the service is on hold. “Everything has been suspended. Funeral travel has been suspended, repatriation of funerals, all military honors have been suspended. This coronavirus is playing havoc with everything,” said Ms. Thoroughgood. “We can’t have more than 10 people to gather. So, we have no clue when this will be held. So, Uncle George will not be coming home until we can actually make the arrangements.

“I thought the hook with the 100th birthday was just perfect,” said Mr. Bowden. “But, hey, life has changed for all of us.”

For years and years, Ms. Thoroughgood sought closure. Obviously, so did Lt. Johnson’s mother, Mary Alice Wheatley Johnson Tull, who passed away in 1984.

Ms. Thoroughgood said her grandmother for several years wrote weekly to the military, pleading with them to bring her son home. Her letter-writing campaign ceased when she was sternly discouraged by the military, Ms. Thoroughgood said.

“She wrote the Department of Defense every week from the end of the war until 1950, when they told her that he was unrecoverable. She wanted him brought home. They had told her at the end of the war they would disinter the caskets and the soldiers would be brought home and given an honorable burial,” said Ms. Thoroughgood. “She wanted that. She wanted them to stick to their word … because she had been told he was in a marked grave on Tarawa and at the end of the war they would go, they would get those remains and they would bring boys home. She wanted that to happen.”

Somehow, someway, somewhere along the line, remains got crossed up. And for decades there was nothing but uncertainty and unknown with no definitive closure for Lt. Johnson’s family.

Several years ago, Ms. Thoroughgood attended a Department of Defense family briefing in Virginia Beach. “They hold them several times a year in different parts of the country,” she said. “We were told back then that they believed he was still in the plane. The plane was submerged. They had no plans to bring the plane up. I accepted that. Then the gal from History Flight said they thought he floated out to sea …”

Lt. Johnson’s closest surviving blood kin are two nieces: Ms. Thoroughgood and her cousin, Janet Starr DeCristofaro of Bergenfield, New Jersey.

“Our mothers were George’s sisters,” said Ms. Thoroughgood. “My uncle does have two remaining first cousins. But Janet and I are the closest relatives. We are his nieces.”

Family received official word of the positive DNA match just before Christmas.

“They called April 3, 2013 … and said they had found wreckage plane and remains of crew and they needed DNA. Back in the fall of 2019 I received a phone call telling me not to be surprised if the case would be closed without him ever being identified,” said Ms. Thoroughgood, adding she was also told there was the possibility that her uncle may have been washed out to sea.

“So, when I received a phone call in December, I was completely shocked. I was hoping for it, an identification, but I wasn’t really expecting it after the phone call,” said Ms. Thoroughgood. “To me it’s literally a miracle that he has been found. When I got the phone call early in the fall that the case would probably be closed without identification, and then a week to 10 days before Christmas that he had been identified, I was literally shocked beyond words. It was a complete 360 from what I had been told a month to two months before.”

In the beginning

This incredible story began on Jan. 21, 1944.

Lt. Johnson was a member of the 38th Bombardment Squadron, 30th Bombardment Group, stationed at Hawkins Field, Betio Island, Tarawa Atoll, Gilbert Islands, when the B-24J bomber he was co-piloting crashed into Tarawa lagoon shortly after takeoff.

Lt. Johnson and the nine other servicemen aboard the aircraft were killed.

Rescue crews recovered the remains of five individuals. However, Lt. Johnson 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.

The U.S. Army’s 604th Quartermaster Graves Registration Company conducted remains recovery operations on Betio between 1946 and 1947. They attempted to consolidate all the remains from isolated burial sites into a single cemetery called Lone Palm Cemetery. The remains of the B-24J crew were believed to be among those moved. However, Lt. Johnson’s remains were not identified, and he was later declared non-recoverable.

In 2017, History Flight, Inc., a non-profit organization, partnered with DPAA, and recovered several coffin burials from Cemetery 33. These remains were sent to the DPAA Laboratory at Joint Base Pearl Harbor-Hickam, Hawaii, for identification.

Seaford native Lt. George M. Johnson (standing, middle) with members of the bomber flight crew.

In April 2019, DPAA identified a set of remains as U.S. Army Air Forces Staff Sgt. Jack R. Busch Jr. He had reportedly been accounted for in 1946 and buried near Niagara, New York. Permission was granted by Staff Sgt. Busch’s family to exhume the remains in New York for testing.

The New York remains were determined to be associated with a set of remains from the History Flight coffin burials. The two sets of remains were consolidated for further testing.

“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 in Tonawanda, New York? So, they got permission from the family to exhume Jack Busch and they ran the DNA and they found a partial of my uncle.”

“The possibilities are limitless, when you think about the investigative techniques they had back in those days,” said Mr. Bowden. “They were very limited in what they could do.”

To identify Lt. Johnson’s remains, scientists from DPAA used dental and anthropological analysis, as well as circumstantial evidence. Additionally, scientists from the Armed Forces Medical Examiner System used mitochondrial DNA (mtDNA) analysis.

Lt. Johnson’s name is recorded on the Courts of the Missing at the National Cemetery of the Pacific along with others still missing from World War II. A rosette will be placed next to his name to indicate he has been accounted for.

Arrangements/full military service

Ms. Thoroughgood said information she has received is that her uncle will be coming into BWI or Philadelphia via commercial flight. When it happens, she and her cousin plan to attend.

“We won’t know until they make the actual arrangements. It will be an honorable transfer from commercial airliner to the hearse,” said Ms. Thoroughgood. “We will be allowed to be there. All we have to do is give them our car description and license plate number, then we will be allowed to be out on the tarmac.”

Through order of the Governor’s Office, flags will be flown at half-staff statewide the day of his interment in Odd Fellows Cemetery in Seaford.

Mr. Bowden said he has touched base with State Sen. Brian Pettyjohn and State Rep. Danny Short on service plans.

“I contacted Brian and Danny Short to tell them what was going on in their territory. Brian was the one who called the governor’s office,” Mr. Bowden said. “I’ve got to give them five days’ notice before the event.”

Lt. Johnson will be buried between Ms. Thoroughgood’s mother and daughter, near his mother, Mary Alice Wheatley Johnson Tull.

Mr. Bowden said Lt. Johnson’s mother had “a tombstone for him, and had his name, and was always hoping that maybe he would be back someday.”

Ms. Thoroughgood said she has been instructed by military liaisons to have a “Plan B” in the event a military chaplain is unavailable for the service, due in part to the world situation.

Melson Funeral Services of Frankford are handling the services for Lt. Johnson.

Flyover plans up in the air

Featured in the honors ceremony/military service are plans for a ceremonial flyover.

Ms. Thoroughgood and her cousin will decide. Initially, they mutually agreed that it would be aircraft out of Dover Air Force Base.

However, after speaking with Doug Brown of Melson Funeral Services last week, Ms. Thoroughgood is leaning heavily toward an offer from pilot/aviation historian Larry Kelley and Linda Price of the Delaware Aviation Museum for Panchito, a B-25 bomber, to take part in the flyover.

“I am lobbying for Larry Kelley instead of the flyover from Dover Air Force Base,” said Ms. Thoroughgood. “After talking to Doug Brown (Friday) he said they did a service a couple of years ago up at the veterans’ cemetery and the flyover never happened.”

Her suggestion for a combined flyover — Dover AFB and Panchito — is highly unlikely, Ms. Thoroughgood said.

“I asked if we could we do both. And I was told ‘no’ because of the logistics and the planning and the air controller and what have you, that it would just be too much and couldn’t be done,” said Ms. Thoroughgood. “And you know, I really think in one respect it would be better to have Larry anyway, because it is a plane very much like Uncle George flew. I think it would be a great tribute to have a plane almost identical to what he flew do the flyover than to have the jets.”

Ms. Thoroughgood said she and her husband John Thoroughgood both agree that the vintage plane would be much more appropriate than modern aircraft.

“I just seem to think that that vintage aircraft seems to suit my style better and I think it would suit my grandmother and Uncle George. His mother — my grandmother — raised me. I just feel like I have a better idea of what I think she would want,” Ms. Thoroughgood said. “I figure I am the one who is designated to make decisions. But I wanted to include her (her cousin) so that she doesn’t feel like everything is my way or the highway. I am hoping that she agrees with me and if she doesn’t, I might pull rank and do it anyway.”

“In my mind I would rather see the flyover done by Panchito, because it is their timeframe,” said Mr. Bowden. “Of course, now we’re kind of in limbo. Maybe in the meantime they can work out some logistics. I told Judi I’ll step back, ‘You’re the family.’ We’ll just offer up these things and see how they go.”

Tight family ties

Ms. Thoroughgood’s bond with her grandmother (Lt. Johnson’s mother) dates to birth.

“His mother raised me. My mother and I were dropped off there the day I came home from the hospital from being born,” said Ms. Thoroughgood. “My father turned to my grandfather while my grandmother and my mother were putting me to bed and said, ‘I am not ready for the responsibility of marriage and a family,’ and walked out the door.”

Seaford native Lt. George M. Johnson (standing, middle) with members of the bomber flight crew.

Her grandfather passed away when she was four years old.

“So, it was my grandmother, my mother and me until I married and left home at age of 19,” said Ms. Thoroughgood. “My grandmother and I were extremely close. When other kids were picked up at the Seaford Fire Hall after a Saturday night dance by their parents in a car, my grandmother was waiting down on the corner for me to walk me home. We didn’t have a car. My grandmother, she was my ‘mother.’ My mother was like an older sister.”

“That is probably why I have held onto everything from Uncle George,” said Ms. Thoroughgood. “It’s a family thing. I was raised knowing about him and hearing about him. His widow (Lucille Butler Johnson) was someone that I was extremely close to. I am still friends with one of her daughters … my Uncle George is not their father. She remarried and had three children.”

Talk of the town

Mr. Bowden said there is an upswelling of pride in Seaford that the government has taken the time to do this.

“I mean they have been doing this for many years, between the group, History Flight, and the government, it is a very honorable thing. I don’t think a lot of people understood that that was still ongoing … World War II,” Mr. Bowden said. “In my Seaford Facebook page, we’ve been keeping things updated. We’ve been doing this for several years. I think it is a good story. I think it’s something in this day and time — a lot of people are really looking for something good. It’s a good feel-good story.”

Mr. Bowden, who now resides in Georgetown, said the Seaford community is quite attached to this story.

There is talk about the possibility of having a parade.

People have even offered a burial plot, thinking that Lt. Johnson might not have one, Mr. Bowden said.

The tombstone in Odd Fellows Cemetery was recently cleaned and spruced up. The three-man cleanup bee enlisted Ronnie Marvel and the Seaford Volunteer Fire Department’s brush truck, for a supply of water.

“It had been sitting for years and built up scales,” said Mr. Bowden. “We had to scrub it several different times to get it to the point that it is now.”

“I’ve been doing this on Veterans Day for several years now, talking about him, thinking that maybe he would get back here,” Mr. Bowden said. “Groups really want to honor him, if the family wants them to. There are a lot of people that are very interested in honoring him. It is ultimately the family’s choice of what they want to do. And the funeral director, Doug Melson, is key into this.”

Now, the waiting game

And so, the actual homecoming for Lt. George M. Johnson is on hold as the world deals with the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I am just so happy for the family, that this is finally coming to a closure,” said Mr. Bowden. “I think it is going to bond the community together and be a very uplifting story for the community in these times that we have got right now. It was a good story when I announced it, that they had found his remains. It was probably the most ‘liked’ story that I have ever done on Facebook about Seaford — this one of George coming home.”

“It is an absolute miracle,” said Ms. Thoroughgood. “It was just meant to be. God has a plan. It would not have been my plan. I would have liked for my uncle to have been identified in 1948 and my grandmother to have had the peace of knowing and comfort of knowing that he was home.”

“So, he is not coming home as soon as I thought he was, but the world is upside down anyway. It doesn’t matter. We have waited 76 years. As long as I know he is coming home, it’s OK,” said Ms. Thoroughgood. “Right now, we couldn’t have a fellowship because you can’t have more than 50 people. Fifty would not be a big enough number, I don’t think. We couldn’t have a fellowship back at the VFW or the American Legion for everyone to have a chance to talk, look at pictures and kind of commiserate. It’s not the right time to do this anyway. It’s a big deal. It’s worth doing right if we are going to do it.”