Sailor is finally coming home; remains of Wesson native to be buried Dec. 7

Published 10:57 am Thursday, December 1, 2016

Frank Springs sees his mom’s baby brother as a hero through her eyes.

Springs, of Lucedale, was only 3 or 4 years old when Fireman 1st Class Jim H. Johnston perished on Dec. 7, 1941 in Pearl Harbor. The 23-year-old Wesson sailor died along with the other 428 crewmen on board the USS Oklahoma when it was attacked by Japanese aircraft. The Oklahoma, moored at Ford Island, took several torpedo hits and quickly capsized. No single vessel at Pearl Harbor, with the exception of the USS Arizona, suffered as many fatalities.

On Wednesday, on the 75th anniversary of his death, Springs will watch his uncle be laid to rest in Wesson Cemetery with full military honors.

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“I have very little recollection of him as a toddler,” Springs, 78, said. Johnston was Springs’ mother’s youngest of two brothers. The Johnston siblings also included another sister. Her other brother was in the Army. “We heard stories about him as I was growing up.”

Through his mother’s recollections, Springs knew Johnston grew up in Wesson and was a pretty good ball player and well liked by most everyone who knew him. “From what I can gather, he was just a happy-go-lucky individual,” he said.

Johnston was on his first tour of duty and had been in the Navy about a year and a half when he was killed in Pearl Harbor.

His family in Wesson considered the young man as missing in action. It took several months before it was determined he was killed in action, Springs said.

From December 1941 until June 1944, Navy personnel recovered the remains of the deceased crew, which were subsequently interred in the Halawa and Nu’uanu Cemeteries.

Staff Sgt. Kristen Duus with the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency tells the story of how Johnston’s remains were eventually identified to be returned home for burial.

In September 1947, tasked with recovering and identifying fallen U.S. personnel in the Pacific Theater, members of the American Graves Registration Service disinterred the remains of U.S. casualties from the two cemeteries and transferred them to the Central Identification Laboratory at Schofield Barracks. The laboratory staff was only able to confirm the identifications of 35 men from the USS Oklahoma at that time. Johnston was not one of them, she said.

The unidentified remains were buried in 46 plots at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, known as the Punchbowl, in Honolulu. In October 1949, a military board classified those who could not be identified as non-recoverable, including Johnston.

In April 2015, the Deputy Secretary of Defense issued a policy memorandum directing the disinterment of unknowns associated with the USS Oklahoma. Two months later, personnel began exhuming the remains from the Punchbowl for analysis.

Scientists used mitochondrial DNA analysis, circumstantial evidence and laboratory analysis, to include dental comparisons, which matched his records.

The DNA came from Springs, Johnston’s oldest living relative, who had been contacted by representatives from the Department of Defense. Springs’ younger brother also submitted DNA.

When the match was made, representatives came to Springs’ home in George County to deliver the news.

“They treated it just like he was killed yesterday,” he said.

Sadly, Springs’ mother died never knowing where her baby brother was buried. “She died only knowing that he was probably buried as an unknown,” he said.

Springs, who is retired Air Force, was on a layover in Honolulu on a trip to Australia. He took the time to visit the Punchbowl and found Johnston’s name on the memorial wall there.

It gives him great joy knowing that his uncle’s name will be on a headstone now, marking the exact spot where Johnston will be buried in his hometown Wednesday. He’ll be laid to rest next to his parents and his older brother and other family.

The public is invited to attend the military funeral, which will begin at 10:30 a.m.

Riverwood Family Funeral Service is in charge of the arrangements. The Brookhaven funeral home is donating their services to show their respect for the sailor’s family.

“It’s an honor for us to be called by the Navy to do this,” Clay McMorris said.

The funeral home will take possession of  Johnston’s remains at Jackson International Tuesday afternoon and will be escorted back to Brookhaven by the Lincoln County Sheriff’s Office and the Patriot Guard motorcycle club.

On Wednesday, the funeral procession will leave Riverwood around 10 a.m., McMorris said. They’ll head to Wesson by way of Hwy. 51, arriving at the cemetery in downtown Wesson about 20 minutes later.

Sheriff Steve Rushing asks that since the procession will travel Hwy. 51, those who choose to wave flags as the procession passes do so with extreme care and safety.

Johnston will be buried with full military honors, including a 21-gun salute and taps, Springs said.

“I’ve heard it said by many people that that generation was America’s best generation and I tend to agree with that,” he said. “They were there and they did their job and they paid the ultimate sacrifices.”

Frank Springs

Frank Springs

Jim Johnston

Jim Johnston