Flag flies over USS Kitty Hawk in father’s honor
Banner from pilot’s casket is raised over carrier 41 years after he was shot down over North Vietnam
By ALLISON BATDORFF | STARS AND STRIPES Published: December 27, 2006
YOKOSUKA NAVAL BASE, Japan — Did Guy “Jeff” Johnson need insurance for the package he was mailing to the USS Kitty Hawk?
“No,” he told the postal worker. The package’s contents were “priceless” — it contained the American flag that had covered his father’s casket.
This flag had flown over the U.S. Capitol, the Pentagon, the CIA and the National Security Administration — where Jeff Johnson is a special agent with the Associate Directorate of Security and Counterintelligence — and was headed now across the ocean to Yokosuka, Japan, and the Navy’s oldest active-duty aircraft carrier.
It was raised above the Kitty Hawk last Wednesday, 41 years to the day (and nearly the time) that Jeff Johnson’s father — Capt. Guy David Johnson — and his navigator, Lt. Cmdr. Lee Edward Nordahl, catapulted off the carrier’s flight deck and never returned.
This was the family’s way of coming “full circle,” Jeff Johnson said via e-mail.
“I have now lived longer than my father,” said Jeff Johnson, who has three children of his own, ages 20, 17 and 13. “I have always wondered how it felt as a parent, when my parents must have known that they were going to part this earth, how and who will care for the children.”
Jeff Johnson’s father was shot down over North Vietnam on Dec. 20, 1965, five days before Christmas and nine days before Jeff’s fifth birthday. The pair left the carrier on a short bomb-damage assessment flight over a “heavily defended” area of North Vietnam, but never made radio contact. Subsequent searches turned up nothing.
Guy Johnson and Nordahl were declared “missing in action” until 1977, when the Vietnamese government confirmed they shot down the RA-5C and that both crewmembers were killed. Guy Johnson’s remains were returned to the family that year; Nordahl’s body is still missing.
Jeff Johnson’s mother, Anne, was buried with a flag, too, as she was a naval reserve nurse. She died of stomach cancer in 1966, a year after her husband went missing. They were laid to rest together in 1977 under a shared headstone in Arlington National Cemetery. Jeff Johnson and his younger sister, Jenny, were raised by Anne’s brother’s family.
“I remember the precision of the burial ceremony,” Jeff Johnson recalled. “Besides the sadness of saying goodbye to a father and mother that I never really knew, [I felt] the pride in how dignified all the burial members performed their duties. I was presented my father’s flag … and my sister has my mother’s flag.”
That it could be flown over the Kitty Hawk on the anniversary of his father’s death is timely, as the aircraft carrier is 45 years old and is due to leave Yokosuka in 2008 for decommissioning.
“The Johnson family and the Kitty Hawk are tied together,” said Kitty Hawk spokesman Chief Petty Officer Jason Chudy after the flag-raising ceremony. “We wanted to make this as honorable as we could, and hopefully give the family some closure.”
Jeff Johnson said that he hopes for the chance to visit the Kitty Hawk and thank the crew personally for their efforts.
The flag will stay in the family — it has since passed to Johnson’s son David, who received it when he became an Eagle Scout.
According to Jeff Johnson, David’s eyes widened during the ceremony when his grandfather’s commendations and citations were enumerated.
“You could see in his eyes that this was important and that he was about to receive an heirloom that meant a lot to the family,” Jeff Johnson said. “I would be honored if he passes that flag on down to his son with the same feeling. I think that as David grows older, he will understand his own accomplishments with pride and also understand the importance of his past — and what his grandfather did and gave up for his family and country.”
Dec. 20, 1965
7:30 a.m. — Lt. Cmdr. Guy David Johnson and Lt. j.g. Lee Edward Nordahl catapult off USS Kitty Hawk in the RA-5C vigilante reconnaissance aircraft with the call sign “Flint River 604.”
7:59 a.m. — They cross into North Vietnam, north of Haipong to survey damage to a bi-thermal power plant and highway bridge (no radio calls).
8:04 a.m. — A radio call goes unanswered.
8:07 a.m. — The plane does not show up for rendezvous with escort aircraft.
8:10 a.m. — Another unanswered radio call
8:15 a.m. — Search and rescue begins, helicopter withdraws before complete search after taking automatic weapons fire. Later that day, pilots report hearing a survival radio beeper but are unable to make contact with either crewmember.
Dec. 21, 1965
4 p.m. — Search effort halted. Johnson and Nordahl placed on “missing in action” status. The pair continued to be promoted in this status, Johnson to captain and Nordahl to lieutenant commander.
Sept. 6, 1977
Vietnamese government confirms it shot down Flint River 604 and both crew members had been killed.
March 19, 1977
North Vietnamese officials turn over Johnson’s remains to U.S. military in Hanoi.
They are later confirmed to be those of Johnson.
Dec. 20, 2006
8:07 a.m. USS Kitty Hawk flag detail raises a flag that had covered Johnson’s casket above the aircraft carrier at the conclusion of morning colors.
After a reading and moment of silence, the flag is lowered and folded for return to family.
— Allison Batdorff
Petty Officer 2nd Class Efran Torres, Seaman Shawn Canfield and Seaman Apprentice Daniel Sullivan (hidden) raised Capt. Guy David Johnson’s flag aboard the USS Kitty Hawk Wednesday, 41 years to the day and his navigator, Lt. Cmdr. Lee Edward Nordahl, catapulted off the carrier’s flight deck and disappeared over North Vietnam.
ALLISON BATDORFF / S&S