Pleasant chatter and laughter filled Cranston Funeral Home in Seaford on Saturday, as friends and family gathered for what Judi Thoroughgood described a “celebration.”
It was a farewell much overdue for the World War II hero, George M. Johnson, a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Air Force.
“It’s a celebration, it is bittersweet but still a celebration,” said Thoroughgood, Johnson’s niece. “He has been away from home now for 77 years. It’s good to finally have him back.”
Twenty-three-year-old Johnson lost his life in a tragic accident, when he and nine others were aboard a Consolidated B-24 Liberator for their first combat mission in the central Pacific.
The heavy bomber crashed after only reaching a few hundred feet in the air, slamming into the lagoon and exploding.
The Johnson family was left to grieve for nearly eight decades without the closure of his body returning home.
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His remains were misidentified as that of Staff Sgt. Jack R Busch Jr., one of the soldiers who died in the B-24 crash, and buried in Tonawanda, New York.
But Saturday, Johnson was laid to rest alongside family members for what was his fifth and final burial.
Without ever losing hope, his mother Alice Johnson, fought hard and long with the defense department to bring her son’s remains back to Delaware. She died fighting.
“You promised you would bring the boys back home after the war was over,” she would tell the officers, Thoroughgood recalled, her eyes welled up with tears.
My grandmother would have been “truly happy” today, said Janet De Cristofaro, Johnson’s other niece.
“She is dancing right now in heaven,” De Cristofaro said. “They are all up in heaven, my mother, Judi’s mother, and they are all dancing.”
Friends and family members were joined by uniformed Army members and police officers who came pay their respects.
One of them, Thoroughgood said, “surprised” the family.
Harlan “Ted” Tull, whose father was Johnson’s stepbrother, said that when he read the news, he knew he had to be at the funeral.
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A former military police officer and state trooper, Tull met with the family for the first time in 50 years.
“I didn’t recognize the name in the paper at first, but then I saw the mother’s name, it was Mary Alice — and I knew,” Tull said. “Honestly before that I had little idea that my father and (Johnson) were stepbrothers.”
Tull, 82, was age 5 when Johnson first joined the National Guard.
“(Tull) showed up today and surprised us,” Thoroughgood said. “I think the connection will last now for long.”
Johnson’ remains were laid to rest in the afternoon, followed by a funeral procession accompanied by a motorcycle escort and officers.
A heavy bomber similar to the one Johnson was co-piloting performed Saturday as a tribute to the fallen soldier; those standing beneath watched emotionally.
Johnson’s story is not just about a soldier who came home after 77 years, it is also about a mother who never stopped looking for her son, a common sentiment echoed by the family.
“Don’t give up,” De Cristofaro said. “If your loved one is missing the Army will never stop looking, don’t ever lose hope.”