More “Little Stories” from World War I

Soldiers of the 1st Ohio Infantry, Company D, of Hillsboro, waiting for the train that will take them to Camp Sheridan in Alabama on October 9, 1917. Via Ohio Memory.

Have you checked back lately to see the new material that’s available on Ohio Memory through the World War I in Ohio Digital Collection? Thanks to a continuation of our “Little Stories of the Great War” grant funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, content is regularly being added from the collections of the Ohio History Connection and local history partners around the state! We invite you to explore these timely reminders of the experiences of Ohioans on the home front and overseas as the centennial of U.S. involvement in the war continues.

Letter from Johnson to his mother, October 6, 1918, via Ohio Memory.

99 years ago today, the letter seen at right was written by Harlan W. Johnson, a U.S. Army lieutenant stationed in France, to his mother back at home in McConnellsville, Ohio. In it, he reports on his unit’s new quarters, where he is housed in a room with the name Lieutenant Campbell (likely ace aviator Douglas Campbell of the 94th Aero Squadron) on the door. The room next to his was used by Eddie Rickenbacker, whom Johnson describes as “another famous American Ace.”

He speaks highly of the electric lights, steam heat and bathhouse that the location offers, but complains about the local cost of paper, which is much more scarce and expensive than at home. He also encourages his other friends and family at home not to be upset at not receiving their own letter, as he is very busy “working for Uncle Sam” and “the only thing that will stop [him] is very cloudy weather.”

Born on a farm near McConnelsville, on March 14, 1892, Harlan Johnson graduated from Ohio Northern University in 1917, and in that same year enlisted in the United States Army. Johnson received officer training at Fort Benjamin Harrison in Indiana (referred to in his letters as Fort Benn), and was among the first group of officers to be trained outside West Point. After transferring to Camp Sherman, he was assigned to Company A of the 331st Infantry. He then attended the School of Military Aeronautics in Austin, Texas, from December 1917 to January 1918, where he took a course in aerial navigation, and on March 14 of that year, joined the American Expeditionary Forces in France.

He continued his training in France (as described in the above letter) and was at the front as an aero-observer with the 168th Aero Squadron by September. Tragically, Johnson received fatal injuries during an aborted reconnaissance flight in late October 1918–less than a month after he wrote this letter. He died at Base Hospital Number 1 on November 1, 1918, and was brought back to McConnellsville for interment at the local cemetery.

In numerous letters to his family written both at training camps and overseas, Johnson keeps them up to date on what he’s learning, where he’s boarding, various aspects of military life and customs, and more. Some incidents of particular interest are his brush with the German measles, an accidental discharge in the armory, his experience at Camp Sherman, and local French celebrations of May Day. As we remember World War I a century later, you can explore Johnson’s story through his own words in the collection available on Ohio Memory.

Thanks to Lily Birkhimer, Digital Projects Coordinator at the Ohio History Connection, for this week’s post!



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