Nearly 70 years after Capt. Anders Johanson was killed during World War II off the coast of North Carolina, his family is getting ready to finally pay their last respects.
Johanson was aboard an oil tanker making its way from Texas to New Jersey when a German U-boat fired three torpedoes at the Dixie Arrow on March 26, 1942, bursting thousands of barrels of oil aboard the ship into flames off of North Carolina's Outer Banks. His family will revisit the site of the wreckage Wednesday.
Survivors of the blast who were brought to Norfolk after being plucked from the sea told reporters at the time that Johanson survived long enough to order boats and life rafts launched _ which helped save 22 members of the 33-man-crew _ before being engulfed in searing flames as the ship sank. His body was never recovered.
More than half a century later, his family is still trying to come to terms with his death.
"He stopped in Jacksonville (Fla.) and asked for a destroyer escort and the destroyer came out and said, `Sorry brother, everything's OK. Don't worry about it," said Johanson's grandson, Dale Revels of Orlando, Fla., who along with his mother and uncle will be visiting the wreckage site for the first time as the guests of federal researchers examine World War II wrecks.
"It was basically a personality failure of the American Navy."
Johanson never received the public recognition that so many others who lost their lives in World War II did. There was no funeral for his wife and two young children to honor the Swedish immigrant, who was on his last cruise for the Merchant Marine before rejoining his family in Brooklyn, N.Y.
Johanson's family struggled in the chaos after his death. They were uprooted from New York and had to stay with family in Beaumont, Texas before a family death there left them with no home. They stayed at boarding home in New Orleans before eventually moving in with other family in Belleview, Fla., where questions for the newcomers were constant.
"When I was going through high school, I didn't have a father. During that time everybody seemed to have a mother and a father and people would ask me, `Where's your father?'" said Johanson's daughter, Jeanne Johanson Revels, now 83 and living in Port Orange, Fla. "They had this big campaign about loose lips sink ships in 1942 during World War II. Those two men came to see my mother said we couldn't say anything about it. I guess it was classified information and you couldn't talk about it at all."
The sinking of merchant ships off North Carolina's coast is now largely a historical footnote known as the Battle of the Atlantic. Federal researchers have spent the past several years examining the shipwrecks, including the Dixie Arrow, in an effort to better protect the ships that are the only gravesites some family members will ever have.
"That's the core of the whole thing. It is not to keep people away from them, but in the same way people are encouraged to go to Arlington National Cemetery or other places important to the nation that you do so with respect and demonstrate behavior that ensures it's there for the next generation, that you treat it in the same way you would want your own family's gravesite treated," said David Alberg, the Newport News-based sanctuary superintendent for the Monitor National Marine Sanctuary.
The Dixie Arrow is one of North Carolina's most popular dive sites. It has been looted by divers on numerous occasions, infuriating Revels.
"You just don't take things off a ship. I mean it's a burial ground. It's like taking the grave stones in a cemetery. You just don't touch it," she said in a telephone interview from her home.
Federal researchers are sponsoring Revel's expedition so that she can finally pay her respects to her father after a lifetime of searching for closure. A wreath ceremony will be held at sea as National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researchers wrap up this year's Battle of the Atlantic expedition.
"It's this horrific story of human suffering and sacrifice and you contrast that with respect with how he was treated in the service of his country. It's really forgotten. It's become the poster child for this history we're trying to preserve," Alberg said.
Revels said she once tried to visit her father's final resting place about a decade ago, but the retired school teacher said that she got to Ocracoke, N.C., and realized she couldn't afford the $800 boat trip.
"I'm very excited because I've been praying for this to happen _ just the recognition of what happened. In World War II there was so much that happened that nobody seems to know about," she said.
"Everybody talks about closure and you know that word, I've never used it, but this will be it."
Battle of the Atlantic Expedition http://sanctuaries.noaa.gov/missions/2011battleoftheatlantic/
Brock Vergakis can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/BrockVergakis