A wife’s race against the clock to track down husband’s Air Force records

PROVIDENCE, R.I. (WPRI) – A snapshot from the 1950s is one of the scarce clues Verna Johnson has about her husband’s military service.

“I have a picture of my husband, dated 1954, when he was in France,” Johnson said.

Jesse Johnson family photo

Verna and Jesse Johnson have been married for 48 years. Through the decades, Jesse rarely spoke about his service, according to Verna.

“I pretty much know he went into the Air Force in 1952,” she recalled. “He told me that he was in England when Queen Elizabeth was coronated.”

That was in 1953. Jesse, now 80 years old, is not able to fill in the blanks.

“My husband is an Alzheimer’s patient,” Johnson said. “I’ve even checked with him on a relatively clear day when he has a little more mental clarity. He just doesn’t have the recall to tell me what his number was.”

The paperwork that would help prove his military service was likely lost in 1973 in a fire that tore through the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, Missouri. An estimated 16 to 18 million records were destroyed, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“Because of his age, I’m trying to get our affairs in order, looking toward a military burial, God forbid, when the time comes,” Johnson said.

“We’re taking care of him daily,” she added. “The last thing I can do for him is make sure he has the burial that he deserves. Right now it seems like I’m not going to be able to do that.”

Jesse and Verna Johnson

In a statement to Call 12 for Action, Kasim Yarn, Rhode Island’s Director of Veterans Affairs said, “We’re grateful for the opportunity to help Ms. Johnson. Her determination to find proof of his military service so he can get the benefits he’s earned is something I deeply respect and admire. It illustrates how important family is to our veterans.”

“We will continue working with all of our partners in government to find some record to verify Mr. Johnson’s service. If anyone has information about his time in the military that could be helpful, please reach out to us through our website or call our office,” Yarn added.

The Rhode Island Office of Veterans Affairs can be reached at (401) 921-2119.

Susan Campbell (scampbell@wpri.com) is the Call 12 for Action and Target 12 consumer investigator for WPRI 12 and Fox Providence. Follow her on Twitter and on Facebook.