Seaford soldier’s return is 77 years in making

Lieutenant who died in WWII, then thought missing, being laid to rest Saturday

By Glenn Rolfe
Posted 9/30/21

SEAFORD — Missing in action, then misidentified for more than seven decades, a Seaford boy who died during World War II is finally back home.

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Seaford soldier’s return is 77 years in making

Lieutenant who died in WWII, then thought missing, being laid to rest Saturday

Posted

SEAFORD — Missing in action, then misidentified for more than seven decades, a Seaford boy who died during World War II is finally back home.

A U.S. flag-draped casket, carrying Army Air Force 2nd Lt. George Johnson’s remains from Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii, touched down at BWI Airport on Tuesday — the dignified transfer a prelude to a procession with full military honors and a burial in Odd Fellows Cemetery on Saturday.

A visitation at Cranston Funeral Home on Shipley Street in Seaford will take place 12:30-1:30 p.m. Saturday. The military funeral procession will follow, featuring a flyover by the B-25 bomber “Panchito” and a large American flag, courtesy of the Seaford Volunteer Fire Department.

Lt. Johnson’s story is an incredible case of mistaken identity: His remains have actually been stateside for a long time, buried in a Buffalo, New York, suburb in a grave thought to contain the body of Staff Sgt. John Roland “Jack” Busch.

“The fact (is) that he could have been home back in 1946 but was mistakenly identified. But it has all worked out,” said Millsboro resident Judi Thoroughgood, one of Lt. Johnson’s two surviving nieces. “I just wish it (had been discovered) in my grandmother’s time. I would have loved for her to have the peace of mind about him being home.”

Ms. Thoroughgood said her grandmother — Mary Alice Wheatley Johnson Tull, Lt. Johnson’s mother — wrote weekly to the military for several years, pleading with them to bring her son home.

But closure was undoubtedly greeted with joy in heaven, she said.

“We said they were dancing — quite happy, absolutely.”

Ms. Thoroughgood and her cousin, Janet Starr DeCristofaro of Bergenfield, New Jersey, the closest surviving kin, met their uncle’s remains, which arrived on an American Airlines flight Tuesday.

“It was nice to see the word ‘American’ over the casket,” said Ms. Thoroughgood. “I was very pleased that it said, ‘America.’”

Also at BWI was Seaford native Jim Bowden, a longtime friend of the family’s.

“It’s closure for the family,” said Mr. Bowden, a historian who has followed this tale for decades. “When it all came about, ... the tears started flowing. All the way over to Baltimore, it was surreal, that all these years talking about it — and their grandmother had talked about it for decades before that — with it finally coming to closure, it meant a lot.”

Ms. Thoroughgood was overwhelmed by the dignified transfer at BWI, which included salutes from water cannons.

“It was amazing. From the water cannons on the plane to the water cannons … when the hearse went out, they just overwhelmed me. There was such a display of honor for him,” she said. “On the plane, people had cameras. Of course, people were not allowed to disembark the plane until after he had been removed. Everyone that could get to a window saw it, and people in the terminal saw it. They made an announcement in both places — terminal and plane — that a fallen soldier was finally home. It was awesome.”

Ms. Thoroughgood added, “The guy that is in charge of the ground traffic, … I saw tears in his eyes. And he sees these on a regular basis. If you have got any love for your country in your heart, all of this and the respect for the flag, it just gets to you.”

Mr. Bowden added that Seaford police met the hearse at the Maryland line for an escort into the city, and the Patriot Guard Riders were part of the procession to and from BWI.

History shows that Lt. Johnson was one of 10 airmen who perished Jan. 21, 1944, when the bomber he was co-piloting crashed into a lagoon after takeoff from Tarawa during America’s island-hopping campaign in the South Pacific. He was 23, the son of James Everett Johnson and Ms. Tull.

Rescue crews recovered the bodies of five individuals. However, Lt. Johnson was reportedly not among them. The three identified sets of remains, plus the two unidentified, were interred in Cemetery 33 on Betio Island, one of several burial grounds established there after the U.S. seized the island from the Japanese in November 1943.

Decades later, in April 2019, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) identified a set of those remains as Army Air Force Staff Sgt. Jack R. Busch Jr., who reportedly had been accounted for in 1946 and buried in New York.

Permission was granted by Sgt. Busch’s family to exhume the remains in New York for testing. Subsequently, in December 2019, DPAA announced that the remains of Lt. Johnson had been identified through its efforts, with assistance from History Flight Inc. His body was actually the one that had been buried in New York.

Lt. Johnson’s remains were then transported to Hawaii.

However, due to the pandemic, his family’s funeral plans and ceremony were put on hold for more than a year.

Ms. Thoroughgood said her uncle will be buried with relatives, between his sister and Ms. Thoroughgood’s daughter. “He’s getting my spot. I’m giving up my spot for him. He’s that special,” she said.

She believes Saturday’s funeral also will be quite special.

“I think it is going to be pretty impressive. The arrival at BWI was impressive. And I think they are going to keep it going,” she said. “I am amazed that so many people genuinely cared about finding Uncle George. It’s amazing so many people still care after all these years. I’m overwhelmed.”

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