DNA reveals Newport's unknown sailor
The Providence Journal | 02:39 PM EDT on Friday, July 14, 2006

Journal Staff Writer

Seaman 1st Class Raymond Johnson -- lost at sea in a naval tragedy in Rhode Island in 1942 -- can now receive a proper burial and gravestone.

NEWPORT -- What the unknown sailor cannot say, his bones can now tell.

Buried here during World War II, without a marker or a memorial service, the Navy seaman remained unidentified and forgotten through the years.

But more than 60 years later, the Navy has exhumed his remains from Island Cemetery and, through DNA testing, solved the mystery of who he was. Now Seaman 1st Class Raymond Johnson -- lost at sea in an all but forgotten naval tragedy in Rhode Island in 1942 -- can receive a proper burial and gravestone.

Today, the only surviving member of Johnson's immediate family is a 77-year-old brother, Jesse, of Needles, Calif. He's the last of nine siblings. Raymond, who was 17 or 18 when he died, never married nor had children.

"I don't have any great feelings about this whole thing," said Jesse Johnson, who got the news from the Navy two days ago. "Keep in mind that I was a kid who was 13. This happened over 60 years ago. Forgive me for not being emotional, but I'm not an emotional person."

A Navy casualty affairs officer will come calling at his door next week, as if his brother had only just died. Jesse Johnson will have a choice of where he wants his brother's remains reburied. He's not comfortable discussing what he plans to tell the Navy, but said he's "doubtful" he'll attend any ceremony.

The Navy's announcement this week, while providing an answer for Jesse Johnson, dashed the hopes of two other families that provided DNA believing the unknown sailor might be a relative. But the news was eagerly greeted by a Fall River veteran who devoted himself to unraveling the mystery of the unknown sailor.

IN 1995, retired Marine Ted Darcy was in Island Cemetery on a research job when he came upon an unmarked grave in a row of veterans. The discovery would lead him on an 11-year odyssey to honor and identify the serviceman at his feet.

Darcy had little to go on at first. No one knew anything about the veteran. But when Darcy checked cemetery records and pored over newspaper archives, he learned of a deadly naval accident on Dec. 2, 1942.

Shortly before midnight that evening, 17 Navy sailors boarded a 26-foot whaleboat in Newport after a night out on the town. While they were being ferried to Middletown's Coddington Cove, and to their 384-foot destroyer Gherardi, rain began to fall and the winds and seas kicked up fiercely. Suddenly, a large wave swamped the boat. Then another capsized it.

Only two sailors survived being thrown into the frigid waters. Fifteen perished.

Most of the bodies were recovered, but three were never found. Eight months later, fishermen found a badly decomposed body missing a head and arms. There were remnants of a Navy uniform, leading Navy medical examiners to conclude it was one of the three missing sailors. But they couldn't determine which one.

So instead of being sent home, the unknown sailor's final resting place became Island Cemetery.

After putting the pieces of the sad story together, Darcy got local veterans to pay for a stone marker that reads, "UNKNOWN US NAVY, AUG 1943." He also started tracking down the relatives of the three missing sailors. Darcy knew the military was using DNA to identify unknown dead because he was working on similar projects as a hobby.

He reached relatives of two of the sailors, including Jesse Johnson, fairly quickly. But it took until 2003 before he finally got in touch with a relative of the third, in Florida. Only then would the Navy consider exhuming the remains, even though Darcy was confident it was Johnson.

The reason, he said, is Navy records indicated the unknown sailor was wearing an on-duty uniform. Raymond Johnson was the coxswain of the whaleboat on its fatal trip. The two other sailors who were never found, Cecil Joyner, of Jacksonville, Fla., and Jack M. Shaul, of New Lisbon, Ind., were on liberty that night.

One relative from each of the three sailor's families sent blood samples to the Navy last year. Then, in April, without notifying any of the families, the Navy quietly exhumed the skeletal remains of the unknown sailor.

On Wednesday, Jesse Johnson got a phone call. It was the Navy. There was news of his brother.

THE JOHNSON children grew up during the Great Depression in Fort Wayne, Ind. They were poor, and things only got tougher when their father died in 1936.

So when Raymond Johnson was just 13, he struck out on his own.

"He was a good kid. He would give you the shirt off his back," said Jesse Johnson, the youngest in the family and three years younger than Raymond. "He never let anyone bother me. He wasn't very big, but he was tough."

At 16, and just three months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Raymond Johnson enlisted in the Navy. By the following December, the Gherardi brought him to Newport.

Soon after the whaleboat capsized, Johnson's family heard from the Navy.

"We were told he was lost in a boat accident. That's all we was told," Jesse Johnson said.

He remembers his widowed mother taking the news hard.

"I came home from school and she was really broken up," he said. "I remember that very well."

Today, Jesse Johnson considers any special attention paid to his family or his brother unnecessary.

"We were just normal people," he said, noting that it was typical then to join the Armed Services and to do so at an early age. One of his brothers earned the Purple Heart and, like Raymond, Jesse joined the Navy at 16. "I know what the Navy is. I know what can happen. I've seen guys die. And that's just the way it is."

Darcy, who's from another generation and served in Vietnam, sees it differently. Using a vast computer database he has assembled, he is trying to solve hundreds, if not thousands, of cases of unidentified military dead.

"To go from a plot of grass and all the way to Needles, Calif., and bring the guy's brother back, it's a little out of the ordinary," he said. "I'm a veteran. I have a soft spot for these things. I don't think it's fair to throw him in the ground and not even mark it."