Gray storm clouds swept over the Baltimore National Cemetery yesterday, unleashing a cold driving rain. Huddled under a canopy, John Y. Averella and Marshall Pittman were reminded of the monsoons of Vietnam as they waited to bury Army Sgt. 1st Class Vernon Z. Johns, a Baltimorean listed as missing in action for 23 years.
Neither Mr. Averella nor Mr. Pittman knew Sergeant Johns whose remains were returned to his family last week after the Army officially confirmed his death. They and a handful of other veterans of the Vietnam War drove to the military cemetery on the outskirts of Baltimore for one reason.
"Every Vietnam veteran should be welcomed home," said Dennis J. Belcastro, who served with the Army's 669th Transportation Company in the central highlands of Vietnam. "This is our way of doing it."
"This represents the longest journey home for all vets," said Mr. Pittman.
For Sergeant Johns' family, the wait was just that much longer, as asudden spring squall pummelled the cemetery's green lawns with hail. Hidden behind the smoked glass windows of a limousine, they waited for a half hour for the rain to stop.
And as a gun-metal sky dissolved in to a sunlit field of blue, the hearse door opened and eight white-gloved soldiers lifted the flag-draped casket carrying Sergeant Johns' remains to a dais under a towering oak.
His widow, Lenora Johns, sat in a velour-draped chair, alongside three of Sergeant Johns' four sisters. For 23 years, they had not seen or talked to one another.
The Army had mistakenly believed that Mrs. Johns had remarried and therefore did not contact her when it confirmed that Sergeant Johns' remains were among those of 21 soldiers returned to the UnitedState by Hanoi in 1989. The call went to the sergeant's brother Russell.
Mrs. Johns learned that her husband's remains had been positively identified and returned to Baltimore last Thursday, when an article appeared in the newspaper.
She tracked down her husband's brother Winfield and later was reunited with her in-laws.
Yesterday, they grieved as a family for Sergeant Johns, who would have been 50 this year.
"Vernon Johns has paid the supreme price for his country and his friends. . . ," said the Rev. A. C. D. Vaughn of the Sharon Baptist Church.
"His spirit is free in the presence of God."
With the conclusion of the graveside service, three shots were fired and a lone bugler played taps. The American flag that had been draped on Sergeant Johns' silver casket was presented to his widow.
Mrs. Johns laid a pale yellow and red-tinged white carnation on the casket and then buried her tear-stained face in the shoulder of friend.
Sergeant Johns, the recipient of several awards including a Bronze Star, a Purple Heart, and a Prisoner of War Medal, was buried alongside two other Maryland soldiers, both veterans of World War II.