Years later, fallen Baltimore soldier homeward bound

April 18, 1991|By Ann LoLordoand Rafael Alvarez

The body of Sgt. 1st Class Vernon Z. Johns, a prisoner of war in Vietnam who has officially been listed as missing in action for the past 23 years, may finally come home to rest in Baltimore.

Yesterday, the Department of the Army confirmed that the remains of Sergeant Johns were among those of 21 servicemen returned to the United States by the Vietnamese government nearly two years ago.

Sergeant Johns was reported missing in action Feb. 3, 1968, when his armored personnel carrier was hit by enemy fire. At the time, he and two other soldiers were on a search-and-destroy mission in the "Hobo Woods" in Binh Duong province north of Saigon, the Army said.

When their armored carrier entered a clearing, the Viet Cong began firing rocket-propelled grenades at the U.S. soldiers. Sergeant Johns and his buddies managed to put out a call for help, but the rescue party sent for them found only one man in the field.

The Army learned later that Sergeant Johns, then 25, had been taken prisoner by the Viet Cong. It is not known how or when he died.

About a week ago, Army personnel brought the news to the elderly stepmother of Sergeant Johns, Roberta C. Johns, who now lives in North Carolina, said Lt. Col. Jim Cole, chief of the Army's Prisoner of War-Missing in Action Division. And one of the soldier's two brothers -- both of whom live in Baltimore -- was contacted yesterday, Colonel Cole said.

Mrs. Johns had raised Sergeant Johns from the age of 8, he said.

Sergeant Johns was one of 10 children in his family, with ages so wide-ranging that there were brothers who had served in World War II and Korea, his brother Winfield Johns said last night.

He said Sergeant Johns attended Douglass High School and played on its basketball team. His brother was married when he entered the Army, Mr. Johns said, adding that there were no children and that the wife -- whose name he could not remember -- eventually remarried.

"It's been many a year," Mr. Johns, a building superintendent for United Way of Central Maryland, said of the long-awaited news. "It was just a shock."

He said the family had waited several years for word after Sergeant Johns was reported missing in 1968, and when the war ended in 1973 and prisoners of war were being released, "we waited to see him on the plane."

About two years ago, he said, the family received word that his remains might have been found. But it was not until recent days that the confirmation finally came.

Mr. Winfield said the family now is awaiting word on arrangements for the return of his brother's remains before they can make plans for his burial.

According to Colonel Cole, the remains of Sergeant Johns are to be flown today from an Army identification center in Honolulu to Travis Air Force Base near Fairfield, Calif.

From there, they will be sent to a funeral home selected by the family, he said.

Of the 21 sets of remains returned by the Vietnamese in April 1989, only nine have been identified, Colonel Cole said.

"All these families have been living with a certain degree of uncertainty for 20-plus years. What they are all looking for is an answer," said Colonel Cole. "There is a sense of relief, a sense of closure."

Identifying remains returned by Vietnam is a long process that begins in Hawaii at the Army's central identification laboratory, where experts use dental and mental records, witness statements, circumstantial evidence, personal effects and any other documentation to make an identification, Colonel Cole said.

After the forensic experts in Hawaii make an identification, the case is forwarded to Alexandria, Va., where three outside forensic specialists review the findings.

If the experts concur in the identification, the information is presented to the family, which can accept the identification, have their own expert review it or present the Army with new data.

If the family accepts the identification, the case is presented to the Armed Forces Identification Review Board for a final decision.

"Then, and only then, do we have an official identification," Colonel Cole said.

In the case of Sergeant Johns, his stepmother was presented with the Army's work, he said. Colonel Cole said some personal items of Sergeant Johns were returned with his remains, but he could not be specific.

In Washington, the name of Sgt. 1st Class Vernon Z. Johns is on panel 37 E, line 5, of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Beside his name is a cross, a symbol indicating that he was missing in action.

Now, the cross will be chiseled away and a diamond will be engraved in its place. The symbol means killed in action.

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