Rushford sailor returns home, 77 years after Pearl Harbor

July 10, 2018

The crowd gathered at the Rushford Lutheran Cemetery on Saturday was there to honor a sailor killed in Pearl Harbor, but 99-year-old Norm Ebner was there to say goodbye to a friend.

The frail, but sharp Ebner rose from his wheelchair as the honor guard fired a three-volley salute in honor of Seaman First Class Joseph Johnson, whose remains returned to Rushford almost 77 years after he was killed on the U.S.S. Oklahoma during the attack on Pearl Harbor.

With tears in his eyes, Ebner returned the salute of the naval officer who presented him with the U.S. flag that had covered Johnson’s remains.

Ebner later told the officer how impressed he was with the service.

“You did a wonderful job, and God damn, you guys look good,” he said causing the officer and his family to laugh.

The day of tribute for Johnson, ending in his burial, was an important one for Ebner and Johnson’s family as well as many people from the Rushford community and beyond.

“This is a historical event that nobody expected to happen,” said Dennis Rislove, Johnson’s nephew. Rislove’s DNA was used to identify his uncle’s remains.

Looking around the rural cemetery filled with people who never knew Johnson, Rislove said he was surprised by the outpouring of community support.

A Marine veteran of the Vietnam War said he traveled to the cemetery simply because, “You don’t see this happen much any more. We have to remember them (fallen veterans).”

Rislove said it was quite an undertaking to bring Johnson home. Almost everyone who knew him has passed away.

Johnson was 22 years old and stationed as a radio operator on the U.S.S. Oklahoma when he was killed on Dec. 7, 1941, during a surprise attack by Japanese planes.

Of the more than 1,350 personnel attached to the Oklahoma, 429 were killed or missing in action. The intermingled remains of the sailors and marines were buried in Hawaii.

Two years ago, Rislove was contacted by the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency and asked for a sample of his DNA. The now-retired Rushford-Peterson superintendent complied. That started the process of identifying the remains and bringing Joe home to Rushford.

In November, Rislove was told that they had identified Johnson. His remains returned to Minnesota at the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport on Friday night.

Members of Rushford American Legion Post 94, the Minnesota Patriot Guard, the U.S. Navy and many others, including area firefighters, police officers and first responders, honored Johnson as his body was transported to Rushford and then later from the Rushford Lutheran Church to the cemetery.

While the tribute at the church and cemetery marked a moment in history, it was more personal for Ebner, who watched his friend laid to rest after so many years.

Ebner played halfback to Johnson’s fullback on a championship football team at Rushford High School. They graduated from Rushford High School in 1939. Ebner later married Johnson’s sister.

Both enlisted in the military and were involved in World War II, though at very different times.

Johnson was there at the beginning. Ebner, a decorated veteran, was there for the invasion at Normandy and the end of the war.

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