The family of one of the six Marines killed in a helicopter crash in Nepal last month was honored Friday afternoon in Beaufort as residents, firefighters and businesses displayed American flags and showed their support along Robert Smalls Parkway.
State Rep. Shannon Erickson asked residents Friday morning to gather along the parkway as the family of Sgt. Ward Mark Johnson IV arrived in town for his funeral.
Burton firefighters suspended an American flag over S.C. 170 just beyond the Broad River Bridge, and hundreds of Beaufort residents lined the highway, most holding American flags or attaching them to their cars and playing patriotic music, as motorcyclists with the Patriot Guard Riders and the hearse carrying Johnson's body made their way to Copeland Funeral Service.
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"I'm a retired Marine, my son was a Marine and now my grandson is a Marine, so we're all family. So when we have a fallen Marine, it's family. ... He's like a brother or a sister. We have to show that honor and respect," Villie Encalade Jr. of Beaufort said about why he came out to honor Johnson.
The family flew in to Savannah evening on Friday and drove to Copeland Funeral Service. A private service will be held at Marine Corps Recruit Depot Parris Island on Saturday, followed by a private burial service at Beaufort National Cemetery.
Johnson, a 29-year-old Charleston native, died in a helicopter crash in a mountainous region of Nepal on May 12. He was a crew chief on a UH-1Y helicopter. He joined the Marine Corps in 2009 and had been stationed at Camp Pendleton in California.
He was among six Marines and two Nepalese soldiers who died in the crash about 45 miles from Kathmandu. The Marines were in Nepal as part of the United States' effort to aid victims of a devastating earthquake in April.
Erickson said she received a call Friday morning that Johnson's funeral would be in Beaufort. After that, she learned that local fire departments planned the tribute for him along Robert Smalls Parkway.
Erickson and many others took to social media to ask residents to line the four miles of road between the Broad River Bridge and the funeral home.
She also contacted Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort to ask if its Marine families wanted to join the welcoming effort. Several cranes were set up along the route and flew American flags.
"It's just a grassroots effort to give him a hero's welcome and say thank you to the families that provide for us," Erickson said. "It's what Beaufort does. We rally around the people we love.”