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Remains of WWII flyer from Delaware identified

By SHANNON MCNAUGHT | Middletown Transcript | Published: March 25, 2020

(Tribune News Service) — The remains of a Delaware soldier killed during World War II have been identified.

George McCullen Johnson was born in 1920 in Seaford and died in the Pacific in 1944. He is survived by his niece, Judi Thoroughgood, of Millsboro. Thoroughgood's mother, Mary Alice Johnson Tull, was Johnson's sister.

"I honestly do believe that it's a miracle," Thoroughgood said.

The Gilbert Islands, as they were known in 1944, are about 3,500 miles east of the most northern point of Papua New Guinea, in the Pacific Ocean. The chain of 16 atolls and coral islands is now known as the Republic of Kiribati. The U.S. took control of the Gilbert Islands from Japan in Nov. 1943.

U.S. Army Air Force 2nd Lt. George McCullen Johnson was stationed there and, just after midnight on Jan. 21, 1944, took off in a B-24J bomber. The 23-year-old was co-pilot on a bombing mission to the Marshall Islands, another Pacific island chain held by the Japanese.

Shortly after takeoff, three miles from the end of the runway, the aircraft crashed into Tarawa lagoon. Johnson and nine others on board were killed.

According to the federal Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, rescuers recovered the remains of five. Three identified sets of remains and two unidentified sets were buried in Cemetery 33 on Betio Island.

Between 1946 and 1947, the army consolidated all the remains on Betio Island into a single cemetery. Those from the crash were thought to be among those moved, but Johnson's remains were not identified and later declared non-recoverable.

Johnson's niece, Judi Thoroughgood, was raised by her grandmother, Lucille Butler Johnson (Johnson's mother).

"My grandmother wrote to the DOD every week of her life, from the time he was killed to the end of the war, when they promised they would go to Tarawa to bring the bodies home for burial until 1950," Thoroughgood said. "The DOD literally said to her, 'We cannot find him, we've done the best we can, so the case is closed.' She died in 1984 still hoping he would be located."

In 2017, History Flight Inc., a nonprofit that partners with the accounting agency, recovered several coffin burials from Cemetery 33. The remains were sent to an army laboratory for identification, and some of them were found to be the remains of Sgt. Jack R. Busch Jr.

However, Busch had already been identified and buried in New York. So if he was in the recovered coffins, who was in New York?

Last year, Busch's family gave permission for the army to exhume and test his remains. Testing determined they had been misidentified and were associated with remains from Cemetery 33.

Using dental and anthropological analysis, circumstantial evidence and mitochondrial DNA, both sets of remains were officially declared to be Johnson's on Dec. 12, 2019.

"My uncle's [remains] are at Hickam [Air Force Base, in Hawaii] and they managed to put what they thought were Busch's remains with them. So pretty much all of my uncle is coming home. His skeleton is pretty much complete," Thoroughgood said.

Johnson's name is recorded on the Courts of the Missing at the National Cemetery of the Pacific in Honolulu, Hawaii, along with other still-missing World War II soldiers. A rosette will be placed next to his name. He has a memorial marker at Odd Fellows Cemetery in Seaford.

During his three years of service in the Air Force, Johnson was awarded a Purple Heart and an Air Medal.

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