by SARAH SQUIRES
It was early on a Sunday morning, and most of the servicemen stationed at Pearl Harbor were on shore leave. But 22-year-old Seaman First Class Joseph Morris Johnson, a radio operator from Rushford, was on duty aboard the U.S.S. Oklahoma in the radio room. He likely did not hear the whine of the Japanese war planes overhead — the first torpedo to rocket down on the U.S. Naval base struck the Oklahoma near the radio room, followed by what are believed to be seven more. The ship capsized; 429 of her crew died when she sank in Battleship Row.
And while Joe’s medals — including the Purple Heart — came home to his family: mother, Marie; father, Helmer; sisters, Lu and Marilyn; and younger brother, Glenn, Joe did not. He was one of 388 Oklahoma sailors who never returned, missing in action, one of the 2,403 Americans killed by Japanese bombers that day. Joe was the first Rushford serviceman to die during World War II, and his family and the community that named its American Legion in his honor never had the chance to bury his remains and say goodbye.
Seventy-five years later, Joe’s nephew Dennis Rislove was in Green Bay, Wis., and officials from the POW/MIA Accounting Agency were explaining the way that mitochondrial DNA — passed down from Rislove’s mother, Marilyn, could help them identify his uncle. “They said, with your DNA there’s probably a good chance in being able to do that,” Rislove explained. A forensic anthropologist ran a cotton swab around inside Rislove’s mouth, and last November, he got the call: Joe’s remains have been identified. Joe is coming home.
Seaman First Class Joseph Morris Johnson’s remains will be flown to the Twin Cities on Friday, July 6, and a military escort will present him to Rushford, where a memorial service will be held at Rushford Lutheran Church on Saturday, July 7, at 1 p.m. He will be laid to rest with full Military Honors after the service in Rushford Lutheran Cemetery.
A life cut short
Joe was born on February 4, 1919, in Columbus, N.D., and in early 1935 he and his family moved to Rushford in the Brooklyn neighborhood. He was a runningback on the high school football team, played baseball and was in the band. As a kid in winter when the creek would freeze, Joe enjoyed ice skating and was known for borrowing his skates to other children who didn’t have them.
“My mom and her sister, they were very close to Joe,” recalled Rislove. “They took [his death] really hard and I think they thought about him an awful lot.” His parents and all his siblings have since passed away, and Joe never married or had children of his own. “The family would have been really happy to have him finally come home,” added Rislove.
Identifying the remains of those who died at Pearl Harbor has been an intense process. Initially, from December 1941 to June 1944, Navy servicemen recovered the bodies of those who had died, and they were interred in the Halawa and Nu’uanu cemetaries in Hawaii. The remains were later recovered by the American Graves Registration Service in September 1947; only 35 of the 429 were identified at that time. The rest of the unidentified remains were buried as unknowns in 46 plots at the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific — the Punchbowl — in Honolulu.
In 2003 a single casket of remains from the Oklahoma was disinterred, and according to Dr. Carrie Brown, DPAA forensic anthropologist and U.S.S. Oklahoma team lead, it contained remains from at least 95 people. In late 2015, the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency and the Department of Veterans Affairs exhumed all of the remains from the Oklahoma and began the long process of identifying them and returning them to their families and communities.
Rislove said during his visit to Green Bay, officials explained the process. First, the thousands of bones were meticulously cleaned and sorted, laid out in a gymnasium-sized room full of tables — sorted with each holding the same types of bones. Then, forensic anthropologists tested each individual bone using mitochondrial DNA samples like the one provided by Rislove.
“I was thinking, well this would be really great if they could identify him and bring him home,” said Rislove of the uncle he never got to meet; Rislove was born 2.5 years after Joe died. “It’s too bad his parents and brothers and sisters are deceased, because it would have been nice if they had some closure to this.”
Rislove said the military effort to identify those killed in action is remarkable, and the painstaking process is one rooted in profound respect. The military historians provided detailed information about the events they’d pieced together about the attack on Pearl Harbor and how Joe was killed. “The first wave of Japanese planes were torpedo bombers, the first torpedo hit the Oklahoma, and the first one hit right near the radio room,” stated Rislove. “[The historian] said, ‘I think World War II, for Joe, was probably less than 10 minutes.’”
All the work, the casket, headstone, engraving, and a personal certificate from President Donald Trump will be provided to Joe’s family. “They really are tremendous in helping the family,” Rislove said. “It makes you really respect the government.” He recalled a saying — you can tell a country’s greatness by the way they treat those who died at war.
Rislove himself served in the Army Reserves, and his father, Joseph S. Rislove, was a lieutenant colonel and commanding officer of the 419 Civil Affairs Company; for a time, his father was his commanding officer too. All five of his dad’s brothers were in the service, “Literally every man I knew that was of service age served,” including Joe’s brother, Glenn, when he came of age. “So there’s been very much a military connection to the family, pretty much everybody.”
Though Joe was never married and never had the chance to have a family of his own, Rislove said he knows the service on Saturday will be a great honor to his legacy. “A full military honor funeral will be something different for Rushford,” he said. “I don’t think they’ve ever seen one of those.”