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World War I and My Great Grandfather John Francisco Johnson

Recently I had the amazing opportunity to visit the National WWI Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri. If you ever have a chance to visit, I highly recommend it. The museum itself is supposedly the largest of its kind and is “America’s leading institution dedicated to remembering, interpreting and understanding the Great War and its enduring impact on the global community”. In my experience, it does a fantastic job at explaining, demonstrating, and presenting World War 1 in its entirety including the years and political climate leading up to its precipice as well as the formal armistice and aftermath.

For those with only a basic knowledge of what happened, like I was before I attended, I want to briefly explain the Great War. The Great War, otherwise known as World War 1 or the First World War, lasted from July 28, 1914 all the way to November 11, 1918. The years leading up to 1914 in Europe saw great cultural, economic, and political strains. People seemed to gravitate toward tribalistic and nationalistic sentiments and emerging groups seemed to hate each other’s differences instead of celebrating them and coming together. All this culminated and exploded when the Archduke Franz Ferdinand from the Austro-Hungarian Empire visited Bosnia and was assassinated by an extremist group. As a result of the assassination, Austria-Hungary declared war on Serbia. Russia expressed favor in defense of Serbia, so declared war on Austria-Hungary. Germany was on the side of Austria-Hungary, so they declared war on Russia. Germany invaded Luxembourg and declared war on Belgium. France and Britain then declared war on Germany in defense of Belgium. Two sides began to emerge, and the Great War started.

Although the war began in 1914, it wasn’t until April 6, 1917 that the United States entered the war after an overwhelming majority vote in the Senate and a declaration from then President Wilson. Germany had been sinking civilian ships and boats without warning which resulted in the deaths of Americans, and they had to be held accountable for it. After entering the War, The United States began a draft, enlisting about 3 million people by the summer of 1918.

At the eleventh hour on November 11, 1918 the fighting stopped. The Germans accepted defeat and the long process of armistice and established peace began. The official and famous Treaty of Versailles signed in 1919 in Paris formally codified peace and victory for the allies. The individual acts of bravery from soldiers exemplified their courage and willingness to fight for freedom. Those individuals and their experiences are amazing to read and hear, especially if those experiences and stories are coming from our own ancestors. Such is the case for me when I read about my great-grandfather John Francisco Johnson and his experience in The Great War.

John’s life is fascinating and full of inspirational moments and examples to learn from, but one for thought is his experience and time in the army throughout World War One. During the beginning years of the war, undoubtedly John had at least heard about the Great War. When the War started, John was in his early 20’s and on when America joined the War on April 6, 1917, John was 24 years old. The United States had implemented a draft and John registered for the draft on June 5, 1917. A few months later on October 2, 1917 John enlisted in the army and was sent to Camp Lewis in Washington state. Two weeks later on October 17, 1917, he was sent to Camp Kearny in Southern California and it was there that he received some training and was assigned first to the 145th Field Artillery with the Utah National Guard, and then a few weeks later he was assigned to the 143rd Field Artillery. While at Camp Kearny, as well as on his draft registration card, John mentioned that he was a miner and worked in blacksmithing. Perhaps because of some of his experience, he was assigned to the Motor Mechanics Regiment and on February 5, 1918 he was sent along with his regiment to Camp Hancock in Georgia to receive further training with other Motor Mechanics. On February 19, 1918, John was assigned to the 10th Motor Mechanics Regiment of the 4th Division and sent to Camp Greene, North Carolina to be with his division and train.

If all those dates and transfers seem confusing, check out the graphic and map I made (above). I think it makes things simpler and it is easier to see things visually. So, all of the training John received culminated and peaked when in mid-September 1918 him and his regiment were sent to New York and then on to the Canadian port of Halifax, a subsidiary Port of Embarkation, to prepare to be sent to the front lines in France.

Private 1st Class John Francisco Johnson boarded his ship out of New York and along with 23 ocean liners, one battleship, and eight destroyers, they began the voyage across the Atlantic. John recounts that the battleship and destroyers stayed with the convoy for a few days to protect them from any German subs that might be in the area and then his ship and the others continued the journey zigzagging across on their way to South Hampton, England.

On the voyage, John was aboard the signal ship, the ship in front that leads and signals to the others, and was resting in his bunk late in the afternoon when he unexpectedly heard a commotion above on deck. Upon arriving to the top deck to see what the excitement was about, he noticed a large periscope from a submarine passing the front of the ship and going to the side. The boat he was on had a large gunner on each side as well as one in the back. As the submarine passed to the left side, the gunner began to drop depth charges attempting to hit the sub. The submarine proceeded to pass to the right side of ship and the other gunner did the same thing. As the submarine passed again to the left side, the gunner dropped the charges and suddenly a loud BOOM was heard followed by a massive cloud of black smoke and a thick film of oil on top of the water. The US troops were safe as a report came in about eight other sub sightings in the area.

When John’s regiment and division reached South Hampton, England, they divvied up into cattle boats to cross the English Channel into France. Sailing through the night, they arrived at Le Havre, France being first sent south to receive their posting orders to go to Paris. John recounts that they originally were supposed to stay in Paris as the Motor Mechanics Regiment, but his captain misunderstood orders so their company boarded a train with others heading to the front lines. By the time their captain got their orders straightened out, it was too late; they were well on their way to reinforce the fronts where men were desperately needed.

At the front lines, John witnessed a makeshift army camp with tin buildings and dirt floors. To sleep on, the men were given straw ticks. As he and his company were lounging around, the whistling of dropping bombs followed by intense explosions began to sound all around. The green company and soldiers ran for cover and John crawled under an old cement railroad pass. The sounds subsided and the company regrouped at their barracks. This was the first time they would experience the sudden, abrupt, and unpredictable front lines.

Later, John and his regiment were sent to the Colombey-les-Belles 1st Air Depot, the largest American facility in the combat zone. They were there to help maintain combat readiness. On John’s third night there, German airplanes came over and dropped bombs, sounding that all too familiar high pitch whistle. The soldiers however were prepared and were instructed to hold out in safety trenches dug outside for this purpose. John recounts that when the alarm rang, the soldiers of his company were in the kitchen. The first out the door leading the pack was their despised sergeant. Now right outside the kitchen was a ditch used to dispose of dirty, greasy dishwater. The sergeant led the way at a running pace and slipped into the ditch covering himself up to his chin in the nasty water. This was of amusement to John and his company for some time after this. Some men also came running out and ended up jumping into their latrine ditches covering themselves in feces and other waste. John bypassed this and laid down on his back by the ditches watching the bombs drop all around him. One piece of bomb shrapnel fell only three feet away from where he was lying. Fortunately, the German planes missed the air depot completely, and although they tried attacking the depot a total of two more times during the war, they never were able to hit the depot.

John had many experiences while stationed at that depot in France. One afternoon, he recounted a lone German plane flying overhead. As everyone stared and wondered, the plane headed straight for the runway and readied to land. As the plane touched the ground and came to a stop, the pilot got out and as everyone watched in wonder, he said “I’m tired of this war. Here, take me prisoner”. John described the crew taking the German plane to a hanger and analyzing the work, being impressed by the plane’s camouflage. On another occasion, John remembered a large company of two-hundred German soldiers marching into camp led by one American soldier in the front and another in the back. The company expressed fatigue of war and as a unit they decided to give themselves up. At the air depot camp, the German soldiers were fed a big meal and rested. As they finished up eating, one particularly young soldier began to cry. He spoke English and asked the American soldiers when they would be taken out and shot. To his amazement, they were not being prepped for death, instead they were fed, housed, and sent to work building roads. Astonishingly, he said that they were told that if they were captured or taken prisoner, that they would be shot. John reported that he was able to communicate to some degree with the Germans because his native tongue was Swedish, which is somewhat similar to German. Because of his language abilities, and also because of his rank of corporal at this time, he supervised 25 German prisoners who were good mechanics. As he got to know and understand these soldiers, they would often trade gifts, and John would often trade his ration of cigarettes and candy for other souvenirs.

When November 11, 1918 rolled around and the armistice was signed signaling the end of the war, the restrictions and duties of the soldiers were relaxed. Since the war was over, John and his company decided to cross over to the no-man’s-land to see the front lines and trenches on the German side. They saw what it was really like, and even accidentally set off a poisonous gas trap. Luckily the wind was blowing that day and no one was injured.

After the armistice was signed and travel restrictions were lifted, the soldiers were able to travel around more freely. John visited places such as the birthplace of Joan of Arc, Cannes, and Monte Carlo. He was fascinated by the history and grandeur of the area he was in and was happy to be able to travel about. A little over a year after he had arrived at France, on September 26, 1919, John was honorably discharged from the army with the rank of Sergeant in the 4th Division. He then returned to Sandy, Utah, and continued his life.

While I was visiting the museum and memorial in Kansas City, I couldn't help but look around at the items and wonder what life would have been like for John in the War. I saw a display of a soldier’s uniform who was from the 4th Division and trained at Camp Greene, NC, the same Division and place where John received his training. It was cool to look at the buttons and patches on that uniform in the museum and compare it to the pictures of John while he was serving. It was neat to see how similar the uniforms were. Perhaps they issued the same uniforms to all soldiers of the 4th Division at Camp Greene and so the two uniforms would be practically identical. Being able to see the uniform in person helped me to tweak the colors in the colorization I did of his army picture for a #photorestorationtuesday that I upload to Instagram every Tuesday!

Even though the First World War occurred over one hundred years ago, I think we all can reminisce and be grateful for the sacrifices those soldiers made for ours and other’s freedoms. I bet if we dive into our own family trees and if you investigate your own, you will find acts of bravery and courage along with interesting and meaningful stories such as I found with my ancestor John Francisco Johnson. My hope is that we can learn from their examples, their courage, heroism, tenacity, and valor. May we all grow together, through learning about our past and exploring our roots.


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