John E. Johnson (1/19/1911 – 3/5/1945) resided in Ellendale, Delaware, at the time of his induction into the Army. The son of Milton farmer Lemuel Johnson and Elizabeth Roach Johnson, he farmed for a time, but by 1943 he was employed as a truck driver for a chicken wholesaler in Milton. At the time of his induction on December 20, 1943, he was 32 years old, more than a decade older than the other men I’ve written about so far. He was a husband and father of four young children as well. One would have thought that men of his age with 5 dependents would not have been drafted except as a last resort.
The truth is a little more complicated. The Wilmington News Journal of November 10, 1943 published a report of indictments filed against 64 Delaware men for draft-related violations. John Edward Johnson of Ellendale was among those charged; the offenses described ranged from the relatively minor (failure to provide proper address information or updates to address changes) up to the more serious (failure to report for pre-induction physical or induction). In John Edward Johnson’s case, he registered in 1940 using Milton as his address; at that time, he was a full-time farmer, living on Nassau Road. By 1943, the family had moved to Ellendale and he was a driving a truck. Chances are, failure to report the address change was an oversight on his part. The newspaper report seems calculated to spook others who may not have been in compliance with Selective Service rules to rectify their situations, or to be turned in by someone. It seems, at least to me, that tarring 64 individuals with the same brush of “draft dodger” was overkill and needlessly damaging to personal reputations. In any case, Johnson was inducted not long after the indictment. One can speculate that his induction might not have taken place so soon if he had kept his records up to date.
Assigned to the 76th Division, 417th Regiment, he underwent a year of training before he arrived with his unit in England on December 5th, 1944. He attained the rank of corporal, perhaps because of his greater maturity or the fact that he had a discernible skill as a truck driver, in contrast to the younger infantrymen on the honor roll who remained buck privates. In January, the 76th Division was in France, and on January 25, began its drive into Germany. On the date of Corporal Johnson’s death, the 76th Division was in the process of capturing the town of Speicher.
Records from a military hospital list the cause of death as multiple wounds in the abdomen and leg from an explosion, most likely an artillery shell. He was dead on arrival at the hospital.
The Division as a whole, and particularly the 417th Regiment, incurred heavy casualties from February to April. The 417th was never fully reconstituted, and was disbanded in 1946.
Elvira Johnson remarried in 1947; she outlived her second husband, Edward Martin Robinson, by 34 years.
April 26, 2023: Additional information has come to light since the initial posting of Cpl. Johnson’s story, and it comes from two sources: an email from his grandson Ernest Edward Johnson to David Damico, a grandson of another soldier (Joseph U. Damico) in the same unit. Here is an excerpt from that email:
My grandfather was Pvt John E. Johnson 42081902, 301st Engineer Combat Battalion, 76th Infantry Division, killed in action on 5 March 1945 during the Kyll River crossing. My dad has little information as he was only 8 years old at the time, but if his memory serves him well relies on what the family was told by personnel detailing his death. He remembers vividly the day the postman came to the house with the telegram reporting my grandfather’s death. Normally the postman just put the mail in the box, but on this dreadful day he pulled into the driveway and walked to the side door of the house to personally deliver the telegram. Eventually they were told that Granddad was killed while either building the bridge crossing or helping with the boats (…the details are unsure).
My grandmother was eventually given his purple heart, a flag, and a copy of the Division book, “We Ripened Fast”. Dad had the Purple Heart at one point and I remember the rare privilege of being allowed to hold it, but unfortunately one of my aunts or uncles lost it along with the book while they had them in their possession. My dad can still to this day rattle off granddad’s service number as he had to help my grandmother fill out much of the paperwork required to receive various military benefits. A few years ago I did a little research and found an original copy of “We Ripened Fast” which I presented to my dad. I also found an original 76th Infantry Division shoulder patch and made my dad a little plaque with it and a picture of the Luxembourg cemetery where my grandfather was laid to rest.
Though I was far from being thought of at the time, I am extremely proud to be the grandson of John Edward Johnson whose name I bear. And, to those of you who served with the 76th, well, words would fail to express my admiration and respect for you. Thank You!