Marine killed 70 years ago is finally laid to rest

On 31st May 2016, a full military funeral was held at Arlington National Cemetery. There was a Marine Band and firing party in attendance. The traditional three shots were fired and ‘Taps’ was played in honor of the man being laid to rest. There is nothing very unusual about this occurrence, at this cemetery, except for the fact that the deceased, Pfc. James B. Johnson, died over 70 years ago in the Battle of Tarawa when, on the 20th November 1943, the Americans and Japanese fought a bloody battle in the Tarawa Atoll of the Gilbert Islands.

Tarawa Atoll was very heavily guarded and the Americans threw everything they had against it and for three days the battle raged. At the end over 1,000 American servicemen and some 5,000 Japanese troops lay dead. Most of the American dead were buried in marked graves on the atoll but with the hasty reconstruction of the infrastructure of the island some of the gravesites were obscured and inevitably this meant that some of the bodies were not recovered for transport back to the US. The military had deemed them to be un-recoverable. These men remained classified as missing in action.

Pfc. Johnson left both a brother, Bill, and sister, Eleanor, behind in America when he went off to war. Jim Johnson, Eleanor’s son, was determined to find out as much as he could about his uncle that had died in the war as neither his mother nor uncle spoke much about their younger brother, though Jim was named after his uncle. He started by trawling the Internet to see if there were any resources that could help and he ran across Mark Noah and his group, History Flight.

History Flight, an NGO, was started in 2003 ostensibly to preserve and promote the history of aviation but after four years they branched out to start looking for the remains of American servicemen that were still listed as missing in action in the Pacific theatre of the war.

Needless to say the bloody battle held on Tarawa has yielded many remains. One mass grave, holding 35 bodies, was discovered under a parking lot, one of a number of obscured grave sites. The grave holding Pfc. Johnson’s remains was located on a small island called Betio in the Tarawa Atoll.The remains were all handled by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, which works closely with organisations such as History flight, to try and identify any remains located. They were able to use dental records as well as DNA submitted by Jim Johnson and another nephew, John McManus, to categorically identify Pfc. Johnson’s remains.

The family requested that Pfc. Johnson be buried at Arlington where his mother, who was a nurse in World War II is also interred. It is fitting that the flag draped over the coffin was folded and presented by Marine Sgt. Maj. Joseph Garay, of the Marine Barracks, Washington, D.C., to Jim Johnson, a decorated Vietnam vet, who began the search for his uncle.

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for WAR HISTORY ONLINE