Billy James Johnson had been buried for the past 77-plus years with his shipmates — the “unknowns” of the USS Oklahoma.
But the truth is, Johnson was always known, always remembered, in New Mexico.
Perhaps that’s why this sailor’s burial — and, perhaps, homecoming — will help mend a gash that had bled through a grieving family for generations.
“Oh, it’s huge, it’s huge,” said Jackie West, Johnson’s great-niece. “That’s exactly the issue — our family had never had closure. It was an open wound that had never really healed.”
Johnson, a fireman first class aboard the Oklahoma, died Dec. 7, 1941, after Japanese torpedoes and bombs capsized the massive battleship and destroyed much of the U.S. Pacific Fleet as World War II began for America. The Oklahoma lost 429 sailors that day at Pearl Harbor — including hundreds who were never fully identified and later buried at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific, often known as the “Punchbowl.”
But on Aug. 19, Johnson’s remains will be brought to Santa Fe National Cemetery and reinterred in a land that helped shape him.
“This is such a big deal to our family,” West said.
Although Johnson’s family had long known he was one of the unknowns buried in Honolulu, only advances in forensic techniques made it possible for his remains to return to the mainland. According to the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, a wing of the Department of Defense, graves of the sailors and Marines from the Oklahoma began to be exhumed in 2015. It was sophisticated DNA analysis that helped identify Johnson.
Although much of Johnson’s family had moved to Missouri by the time he joined the Navy in August 1940, it still had significant roots in New Mexico, a network that thrives to this day.
His parents, William and Zelah Johnson, had moved their family of nine children from state to state at a time when finding a job — and keeping it — was excruciatingly difficult in a nation wracked by the Great Depression.
“You moved to where there was work,” said Darlene Nelson, West’s sister.
West said sometime after 1927, the Johnsons moved to Chama, with William Johnson first working at a fish hatchery and later a dairy. The family spent part of the 1930s in Northern New Mexico before eventually moving on to Missouri, where Billy, then 19, enlisted.
Members of his family, notably his sister Marion, remained in New Mexico. Marion and her husband, Ernie Clark, were married in the small Northern New Mexico town of Canjilon in 1933 and owned Clark and Sons Wrecking Yard in Santa Fe for many years. Two of their three sons, Wendell and Jerry Clark, stayed in town and ran Clark and Sons Truck and Automotive Garage, which is still in operation.
Through these many years, the family was able to keep a few artifacts of Billy’s life. Most are in West’s possession. She said Billy sent home a Christmas card, dated Dec. 2, 1941, plus a picture of him in his Navy uniform. To his family, they are Medal of Honor-precious.
“We also have a poem written by his sister that was [about] him being missing,” said West, a 1980 Santa Fe High School graduate who now lives in Albuquerque. “And we have a letter sent from our family, asking for information.”
All these decades later, that information — somber, but welcome — finally arrived. On Feb. 26, Johnson was identified through mitochondrial DNA that was compared with the DNA sample of his nephew, Jerry Clark, West’s dad. Of the Oklahoma’s lost 429 sailors, Johnson was the 200th to be identified.
“On Feb. 28, we got a call from the Navy casualty office,” West said. “It was an ‘Oh, my God’ moment.”
West said Johnson’s death at Pearl Harbor has led her to find relatives in many states. The irony is not lost on her.
“People like Billy, who passed on, actually helped me connect with the people who are alive,” she said.
The connection, it seems, was perfect for a Navy man.
“He was like an anchor,” West said of a young sailor, gone too soon.
© 2019 The Santa Fe New Mexican
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