CHOWCHILLA, Calif. — Seventy-five-year-old military veteran Kevin Johnson fought back tears Monday, standing over his father’s grave as his colleagues handed him a folded flag.
He was only 4 or 5 years old when his father, Cpl. Thomas Jefferson Johnson – “TJ” to his family – joined the U.S. Marines during World War II and was killed in action in the 1944 invasion of Guam.
As a member of the American Veterans Post 56, Johnson traveled to more than 100 military funerals a year in Tulare and Kings counties. But as he honored the lives of other fallen veterans, Johnson held a secret regret inside his heart: His father never received full military honors.
Two years after the war, Thomas Johnson’s remains were returned to the United States for a quiet burial in Chowchilla – no bugle playing taps, no color guard, no gun salute or presentation of the flag.
“It’s something that bothered me – he never had the funeral he deserved,” Johnson said. “I said to myself, ‘It’s a shame my father never received that.’ I asked these guys if we could do it and every one of them said ‘yes.’ ”
A team of honor guard members gathered at the Chowchilla Cemetery on Monday morning to give Johnson’s father the proper military honors in a ceremony that brought the Tulare resident to tears.
“It’s the greatest day of my life to be able to come down and do this for my dad,” Johnson said. “I just think it’s way past due.”
Tom Donwen, 74, an honor guard member and former post commander, said he gets personal satisfaction taking part in burial ceremonies and was particularly emotional Monday because of his relationship with Kevin Johnson.
“I know Kevin and he’s been passionate about this,” Donwen said. “He tells us about his dad and kept mentioning he’d never received military honors.
“These are our guys. It’s an unspoken brotherhood,” he added, “If we know the family, it’s a little more personal for me. Every one of them deserves it.”
Alex Halley, 83, color guard commander, said it’s never too late to give a service member a proper funeral, even if it’s more than 70 years later.
“For our fallen brothers, we feel it’s necessary to have a proper funeral to send them to their next command,” Halley said. “Thousands of them have not had the chance to have a proper sendoff from this life to the next. It makes us more convinced to give our time to make sure the services go right for our fallen brothers and sisters.”
Coincidentally, a local historian named Randy Weaver acquired a funeral book belonging to Thomas Johnson five years ago, after Johnson’s sister moved out of her home. Weaver came to the cemetery Monday to give the book to Kevin Johnson.
Weaver said he also has the Bible that Johnson was carrying and Western Union announcements about his death. He plans to give those items to Kevin Johnson as well.