The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency “gives new meaning to no man left behind,” stated Patricia Farinacci, during a tribute to her uncle, Joseph M. Johnson, whose remains were escorted back home to Rushford, Minn., 76 years and 7 months after his death at Pearl Harbor.
Joseph Morris Johnson (“Joe”) was born on February 4, 1919, to Helmer and Marie (Sande) Johnson in Columbus, N. Dak. Joe was the oldest of four children, with younger siblings Marilyn, Lucille and Glenn. “When Joe was 14 the family moved to Rushford,” stated Farinacci.
“Joe played baseball, was in the band, was a member of the 1935 championship football team. He loved music and played piano by ear,” she added.
After graduating with the Rushford Class of 1939, Joe enlisted in the Navy on April 23, 1940. He attended basic training at the Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Illinois and then received further training as a radioman in the State of Washington.
Joe reported for duty aboard the USS Oklahoma in Hawaii and was on duty when Pearl Harbor was attacked on the morning of Sunday, December 7, 1941. The first attack was a torpedo attack and the USS Oklahoma was the first ship to be hit. Having been hit by six torpedoes, the ship took on water and began to sink rapidly. It then turned upside down trapping the 429 men on board. Joseph M. Johnson was 22 years old when he died that fateful day.
“The Oklahoma sustained multiple torpedo hits which caused it to quickly capsize,” stated Farinacci. The family was notified that they may never receive Joe’s remains due to the severity of the torpedo hits and subsequent fire.
Rislove recently learned from a Navy Commander that this was the only time a U.S. battleship of that size has sunk. He said one problem was that there was an admiral’s inspection of the USS Oklahoma scheduled that day so to make the inspection easier all of the watertight containment systems in the ship’s hull were left open. When the torpedoes hit, the battleship took on water quickly and was not able to stay afloat.
Of the 429 sailors and marines killed on the USS Oklahoma, 388 of their remains were considered non-recoverable. The remains of those 388 service members were buried in a comingled state in 61 caskets in 46 gravesites at Punchbowl Cemetery, also known National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, in Honolulu, Hawaii.
“In 2015 our family was notified that the DPAA had received funding to disinter the 61 caskets and try to identify the remains by the use of new DNA science and return the identified remains to their families,” stated Farinacci.
The process of identifying Joe began when Dennis Rislove, Joe’s nephew, was contacted by the DPAA. “I got invited to a meeting in Green Bay for families of the Oklahoma,” explains Rislove. “I was always interested in this, so I went,” he said.
“They did a program on what’s going on and what they are going to try to do,” adds Rislove. “They had all the remains of these 388 sailors and they knew their names, but they didn’t have any way to identify them,” he states.
“Since DNA came along — they can now test the bones for DNA and then if they can find a direct family member that can match it, they can identify it. When I was at that meeting they asked for my DNA and I gave a sample,” states Rislove.
Mitochondrial DNA is traced through the females in each family and since Rislove’s mother, Marilyn, was a sister to Joe they could use Rislove’s DNA sample for a possible match.
“Our family hoped and prayed that Joe’s remains would be identified, and finally in 2017 we got the call that we could bring Joe home,” Farinacci stated.
Although Farinacci and Rislove never knew their Uncle Joe, they have always felt like they knew him through their mother’s and aunt’s stories. The family has also learned about Joe from Norm Ebner, 99, the only living family member who knew Joe. Ebner was in the same class and graduated high school with Joe in 1939 and married Joe’s sister, Lucille.
Joe’s five nieces and two nephews and their families began planning the services and burial. With help from several sources including the Navy Casualty Assistance Division and Mortuary Service, the Patriot Guard, the Murphy-Johnson Legion Post 94, Pastor Matheson and Gary Hoff, among others, Joe’s homecoming was just as he deserved.
Joe’s remains were flown into Minneapolis on Friday, July 6, 2018. That night a motorcycle brigade led by the American Legion Riders provided an escort into Rushford, along with local police and fire trucks with their lights flashing.
The streets of Rushford were lined with men, women and children of all ages wearing patriotic colors, placing their hands over their hearts, waving flags, holding up signs and several saluting the hearse as it drove by. A patriot honor guard and naval color guard attended the remains that evening.
A tribute service was held at Rushford Lutheran Church Saturday, July 7, with people from near and far attending, including many service members. The church was full of those wishing to pay their respects. The service ended with the large crowd in attendance singing “America the Beautiful,” which seemed a very fitting tribute to Joe.
Joe was then laid to rest at Rushford Lutheran Cemetery, next to his mother and father and close to his sisters, with full military honors including a 21 gun salute and the playing of “Taps.” Representatives from the U.S. Navy and The Office of Veterans Affairs were in attendance. Honorary pallbearers were members of the Murphy-Johnson American Legion Post, which is partially named in honor of Joe.
Following the ceremony at the cemetery all were welcome to gather at Veterans Park at Creekside Park in Rushford for fellowship and refreshments.
Laying Joe to rest in Rushford is “closure, I guess, but bittersweet as his siblings all passed away without knowing Joe was able to come home,” said Farinacci.
Rislove said the family members who have passed away would have been “ecstatically happy” about Joe being home, as they spent their whole lives being told that there was no way to recover him and that this was impossible. The family had a funeral for Joe in 1942, as they thought his remains would never come home.
Farinacci shared the family’s gratitude to the DPAA for “their tireless work to recover the remains of American MIA’s all over the world and to reunite them with their families,” she said, noting that there are over 70,000 MIAs from WWII alone.
“Our most sincere hope is that American MIAs will be found and brought home to their families to be honored as we honor our Joe today,” stated Farinacci.