A southwest Arkansas family will find closure this week, after more than seven decades years of waiting and wondering.
The remains of Pvt. Rudy Johnson were flown home Tuesday from Italy, where they had been since he died in World War II.
Planeside honors awaited when Delta flight 2105 landed at Clinton National Airport. The flight took roughly an hour and a half to travel from Atlanta to Little Rock, but it marked the end of a 73-year mission to bring Johnson’s body back home.
“I’m always amazed when someone is identified,” Jerry Ashby said.
Ashby, a Vietnam veteran, and was one of several people who met Johnson’s casket at the airport.
Johnson, who grew up in Tollette, was 18 years old when he was drafted into the Army. He joined Company K, 3rd Battalion, 365th Infantry Division, 92nd Infantry Division. The 92nd was the only African-American infantry division to see combat in the European theater during World War II. It was involved in Operation Fourth Term in Northern Italy in February 1945. Johnson’s unit declared him Missing in Action on February 6 before changing his status to Killed in Action on February 21, because there was no information about his location.
According to Sgt. Kenneth Johnson of the Arkansas National Guard, many of the bodies of soldiers found during World War II were preserved in formaldehyde, which made it harder to analyze their DNA. Technology has recently advanced enough to let scientists identify Johnson in 2017. After several months of coordination between Italian officials, the US Army, and the Johnson family, his body is finally back home in Arkansas.
“It warms my heart to know that we can give this family closure,” Ashby said, “because in this case, he still has siblings alive, and it’s going to be very powerful and very meaningful to this family.”
Johnson has two brothers and three sisters who are still alive. Three live near Nashville, Arkansas, one lives in Omaha, Nebraska; and one lives in Denver.
Airport staff stood at attention while Johnson’s casket was unloaded from the plane. Some passengers watched or filmed the ceremony from their seats, while travelers in the terminal watched from the gate. Members of the Hope Police Department, Hempstead County Sheriff’s Office, and the Arkansas Patriot Guard Riders met Johnson’s flight as well. After soldiers loaded the casket into a hearse, they all escorted the body to Hicks Funeral Home in Hope.
“Every time we serve a family, we leave a piece of our heart with that family,” said Ashby, Assistant State Captain for the Arkansas Patriot Guard Riders. “And it will wear on you, but it’s a heart-called feeling. These riders behind me will tell you that they live for this.”
For seven decades, the Johnson family knew only part of what happened to their son and brother. Now they can lay him to rest in the country he died protecting. Ashby said members of the Patriot Guard planned to meet with the Johnson family Tuesday night, attend his funeral Thursday, then escort his body from the funeral home to the Arkansas State Veteran’s Cemetery for his interment at 1:00 p.m. Friday.
Ashby said they choose to give their time to thank the families for their sacrifice, and to make sure that every deceased veteran gets the recognition he or she deserves.
“We do it because it’s the right thing to do,” Ashby explained, “to honor those that have served our country, and as in [this case], those that have given their life for our freedom. It’s the most valuable thing to us there is.”