RED BLUFF, Calif. - Fallen Marine Thomas Frank Johnson's remains were found just this past year in 2019, and a DNA match brought investigators to his niece. She says, it's a homecoming, years in the making.
"A few years ago I got a letter from the DPAA, and it was welcoming me to go to Sacramento, it was like five or six years ago. It was talking M.I.A. and POW's and I had two uncles that were killed in Tarawa, so I went, and they were asking for DNA from family members," said Kathleen Vanatta, niece to Johnson who was a Private First Class in the U.S. Marines Corps.
Johnson died in the Battle of Tarawa on November 22, 1943. Growing up, Vanatta heard stories of her uncles through her father.
"I was very interested because that's all my dad ever talked about was his brother's killed in Tarawa," she said.
Then there was a match.
"Last May they called me and said they located one of my uncles and I was just shocked," Vanatta said about getting the phone call that connected her to her uncle.
77 years after he died in battle, Thomas Frank Johnson's body was found in the South Pacific, in the Republic of Kiribati.
"He was one of the missing rows," she said, talking about the rows of MIA's and POW's, "and it was very amazing and I was very happy."
Johnson's remains were flown to Sacramento, where an entourage of fire trucks, police cruisers, and the patriot guard was met with honks and cheers on the way to Red Bluff.
"It was very emotional, I mean all the way up, there are people across the overpasses with flags and waving saying welcome home marine," said Vanatta about the support her uncle received during the route from Sacramento to Red Bluff. "It was amazing," she added.
"I think it's the greatest thing going I really do," said Vietnam War Veteran Norman Goodwin who attended to show his support. "I feel for the family, all the years they went through this, never knew."
Johnson will be buried next to his brother, Vanatta's father, in Redding.
"What does it mean to finally have a place where you can go, he's there?" asked Action News. "Oh, it means a lot to me because I go to visit my parents all the time," Vanatta responded. "Igo is a beautiful cemetery."
Thomas Johnson was taken in that entourage to a funeral home in Red Bluff.
Vanatta told Action News Now, their job isn't done. The family has another uncle, Hugh Johnson, who died just days after Thomas did in the South Pacific on another island. His remains are still missing.
Thomas Frank Johnson will be buried in Redding at the Northern California Veterans Cemetery on Monday, November 23.