SEAFORD — Finally, after nearly 78 years, there is closure.
Full military honors, a patriotic flyover and immense outpouring of respect from a caring community punctuated funeral services Saturday for U.S. Army Air Force 2nd Lt. George M. Johnson — one of the long lost souls from World War II.
Lt. Johnson, 23, was the son of James Everett Johnson and Mary Alice Wheatley Johnson (Tull). He was listed as missing in action for more than seven decades. His mother, who for years pleaded with the military to bring her son home, passed away in 1984.
“This is it. He is home to rest,” said Janet Starr DeCristofaro of Bergenfield, New Jersey, one of Lt. Johnson’s two surviving nieces. “This is his final journey — and he is here, where he belongs.”
“It’s bittersweet, very, very bittersweet,” said niece Judi Thoroughgood of Millsboro. “My grandmother passed on July 22, 1984, and I said they have been together since then. It’s just special now that he is finally home.”
Seaford Volunteer Fire Department’s ladder truck provided a huge American flag waving over an entrance to the Odd Fellows Cemetery.
“What a fantastic day. You couldn’t ask for any better day,” said Jim Bowden, a longtime friend of the family who has followed this story for decades. “The heavens opened up with just a few clouds to make it look really fantastic. It’s finally closure for the family and closure for Seaford. Seaford, as you see, they came out in droves to celebrate George’s coming home.”
Lt. Johnson’s final resting place is near his mother with other family members.
Lt. Johnson, one of 10 crew members who died Jan. 21, 1944 when the B-24 bomber he was co-piloting crashed shortly after takeoff from the Tawara, had been listed as missing in action for more than seven decades.
This case of mistaken identity took an abrupt turn in December 2019.
Through advanced scientific testing, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency announced the remains of Lt. George M. Johnson had been identified through efforts of DPAA and History Flight, Inc. and it was Lt. Johnson buried in a grave in the Buffalo, New York suburb of North Tonawanda originally thought to contain the remains of U.S. Army Air Forces Staff Sgt. Jack R. Busch.
Earlier, in April 2019, the DPAA identified a set of remains as Staff Sgt. Jack R. Busch Jr., who initially had reportedly been accounted for in 1946 and buried near Buffalo. Several years ago, Staff Sgt. Busch’s remains were recovered on the Island of Betio, Tarawa.
Lt. Johnson’s remains were subsequently transported to Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii but plans for services last year were put on hold due to the COVID 19 pandemic. The remains remained in Hawaii until recently arriving stateside.
The flag-draped casket arrived Tuesday, Sept. 28 at BWI Airport and with motorcycle escort spearheaded by Seaford’s American Legion Post 6 Rider was transported to the Cranston Funeral Home in Seaford.
“These are understandable mistakes,” said Jack Thomas, Legion 6 Riders director. “You lose so many people. And many times, we have so little of a body to identify them with. I do think the Department of Defense makes a very good effort in repatriation to where they should be.”
Mr. Thomas held back tears as he spoke of Lt. Johnson’s homecoming.
“As far as bringing him home … that’s important. He’s home. It took 70-plus years, but he’s here. He has had a hell of a journey. And he has got to know we didn’t forget him,” Mr. Thomas said.
The grave site ceremony was punctuated by a flyover by Panchito, a B-25 Mitchell bomber piloted by Larry Kelley. Scheduled to be on board were State Rep. Danny Short of Seaford and State Sen. Brian Pettyjohn of Georgetown.
Armore Rice, representing Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 4961 in Seaford, offered a few words.
“Welcome home, Lt. Johnson,” Mr. Rice said. “This is definitely a celebration. I was looking it up … it said 81,900 soldiers are still missing. But today we changed that number. It is 81,899.”
“It is a momentous occasion,” said Ms. DeCristofaro. “Just the fact that he was found after so many years. My grandmother wrote to them religiously to try and find him, and we didn’t think he’d ever be found. I’m just overwhelmed and happy … and sad.”