ALBANY — When Jim Johnson’s quest to find out more about his namesake uncle killed in World War II led him to Mark Noah, the two men discovered they lived on the same island in the Florida Keys and even frequented the same bar.
On Tuesday, eight years after they first met, Johnson and Noah will attend the burial ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery for Pfc. James B. Johnson, whose remains were among those of 34 other Marines that Noah’s nonprofit organization recovered last year from a remote Pacific battlefield.
“The fact that I told him eight years ago that I’d help him out and we were actually able to recover his uncle is unbelievable for me,” Noah, founder of History Flight, said recently.
Last week, the Pentagon’s Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency announced that Pfc. Johnson’s remains had been identified after being recovered on the Tarawa atoll in June 2015 by volunteer members of Noah’s Marathon, Florida-based group. Pfc. Johnson, who grew up in Poughkeepsie, New York, was among the first waves of Marines to hit the beaches of the heavily defended island Nov. 20, 1943.
When the battle ended three days later, Johnson and more than 1,000 other Marines and sailors were dead, along with nearly all of the island’s 5,000 Japanese defenders. Many of the American dead were temporarily buried in marked cemeteries on Tarawa, but some burial places were obscured by Navy construction crews hastily building roads and repairing the island’s airfield. Johnson was among the Marines whose buried bodies were left behind and later deemed non-recoverable by the military.
Noah, a self-described “WWII nerd,” founded History Flight in 2003 to preserve and promote WWII aviation history. Four years later, the group started searching for the remains of Americans still listed as missing in action in the Pacific. So far, on Tarawa alone, the group has recovered the remains of more than 100 servicemen, including a group of 35 found last summer buried under an asphalt parking lot. Among them was First Lt. Alexander “Sandy” Bonnyman, who was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor for his heroics on Tarawa.
But none of the recoveries have touched Noah as much as Pfc. Johnson’s.
In 2007, Hyde Park, New York, native James B. Johnson started searching the Internet for information on his uncle, who was 19 when he died at Tarawa while serving in the 2nd Marine Division. The teenager, called Jimmie by his family, left behind two older siblings, Eleanor and Bill, who have since died.
Jim Johnson said his father, Bill, and his aunt didn’t talk much about the younger brother they lost in the war.
The nephew’s search eventually led him to Noah, then a fellow resident of Big Pine Key. It turned out the two men lived about a mile apart and frequented the same pub but had never met.
“We’ve been great friends ever since,” said Noah, 51, a Miami-based pilot for UPS.
The Pentagon said scientists used DNA samples submitted by Jim Johnson and another nephew, John McManus, of Hyde Park, to identify the Marine’s remains. The family requested he be buried at Arlington, where Jim Johnson’s mother, a WWII Army nurse, is also interred.
“We’re very happy,” said Jim Johnson, a Vietnam combat veteran. “It’s nice to see him have a proper ceremony.”
The retired IBM systems designer now living in Melbourne, Florida, will attend Tuesday’s burial at Arlington along with about 20 relatives and friends, including Noah.
“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Noah said.