Remains of captain killed in 1966 ID’d

Capt. James M. Johnstone
Capt. James M. Johnstone

Military officials announced Friday they have identified remains found in Laos to be those of an Army captain whose airplane crashed in 1966, a spokeswoman for the Defense POW/MIA Missing Personnel Office said.

Capt. James M. Johnstone, who was born in Baton Rouge and grew up in South Carolina, was 28 when his OV-1A Mohawk aircraft crashed in Attapu Province, Laos, while on a daytime reconnaissance mission on Nov. 19, 1966, spokeswoman Maj. Carie A. Parker said.

The remains of the other pilot, Maj. James L. Whited, also were identified.

Johnstone will be buried with military honors in Arlington National Cemetery near Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.

“I couldn’t be more excited, I’m on an adrenaline shot,” daughter Shawn Johnstone, 46, said .

On July 10, Johnstone said government officials told her scientists had identified the remains found in the Attapu Province as her father’s.

On Johnstone’s phone, Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” plays for callers while they wait for her to pick up.

The song is appropriate because she never stopped believing her father’s remains would be found.

Johnstone, who lives in Colorado, said Army patrols attempted to reach the crash site, but enemy military presence in the area was too large.

More than 40 years later, Johnstone said several pieces fell into place for authorities to identify her father’s remains.

She said after the crash, villagers took the valuables from the crash site, including her father’s American Express card. Forty-one years later, a villager turned that card over to government officials, prompting a new investigation into the crash.

Johnstone said that card was one of three main pieces of evidence that forensic scientists at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, or JPAC, in Oahu, Hawaii, used to identify the remains.

The other two were Johnstone’s partially destroyed military ID card with his photo and thumb print and a tooth, a molar.

Johnstone said scientists found Whited’s molar as well and used it to identify him.

Johnstone said near the crash site, loggers placed wooden planks on the side of a hill. Officials found Johnstone’s molar lodged near one of those planks.

Johnstone said she believes if the plank had not been there, the tooth would have washed away in a rainstorm.

“I’m a big believer in miracles, always have been,” she said.

Johnstone said military officials gave her the sealed evidence bag with the ID and tooth, along with other items like buttons that were burned in the crash and coins found in the wreckage.

The evidence might never have been found if not for one of her father’s Army friends who knew the location of the crash.

“Really if it weren’t for him, this would never have happened,” she said.

Johnstone said the government gave her a 100-page book with all the details from the multiple investigations military officials conducted looking for the wreckage. The friend noticed the coordinates officials were using to coordinate the search were wrong and alerted them to the mistake, Johnstone said.

A team from a joint U.S./ Lao People’s Democratic Republic operation found the remains in 2007 and they were transported to JPAC, where forensic teams identified the remains earlier this year.

Johnstone and her twin brother, Kevin Hocevar, were born about six weeks prior to their father’s death and she only knows about him from stories friends and family tell.

“From what I understand, my dad was pretty feisty and a fearless flier,” Johnstone said.

Johnstone said she grew as a person and learned a lot about herself while waiting for the government to find and identify her father’s remains.

“It made me realize that its a waste of time to sweat the small stuff, or even the big stuff,” she said. “It gave me a voice I didn’t have before.”