Saturday, June 11, 2016

Somewhere in France: Pvt. Henry R. Johnson

Dick Young brought this beautifully preserved memorial to Henry R. Johnson, one of Lucas County's World War I losses, into the museum for safekeeping on Friday --- and we were delighted to receive it. The timing was perfect, since Kathleen is just beginning the considerable task of redeploying our military collection now that new cases have arrived and are in place.

Henry died of complications from influenza in France on Oct. 31, 1918, and his remains eventually were repatriated to the Chariton Cemetery. But when this framed memorial was commissioned, the loss was fresh and his remains still were buried "somewhere in France," as the poem says.


Henry, born Sept. 15, 1892, in English Township, was the eldest of 10 children born to August "Gust" L. and Helma (Johnson) Johnson --- both natives of Sweden. The family home was located near Cain Presbyterian Church, north of Chariton, but the Johnsons were Lutheran --- members of Chariton's Swedish Lutheran (now First Lutheran) congregation --- and that's where Henry was baptized and confirmed.

Henry grew up and received his education in English Township and was working as a farmhand for his father when he was drafted for World War I service during May of 1918.

Friends and family gathered at the Rock Island Depot in Chariton on May 28 to bid farewell to Henry and 38 other draftees as they climbed aboard a northbound train headed for Des Moines and Camp Dodge.

At Camp Dodge, Henry was assigned to Battery F, 337th Field Artillery, and later that summer was transferred with his unit to Camp Mills, New York. The 337th sailed from New York on Aug. 10, 1918, to join American Expeditionary Forces in France.

As had been the case in earlier wars, disease was more of threat to U.S. forces during World War I than enemy combatants and on Oct. 11, Henry was stricken with influenza. Pneumonia developed as a complication and he died on Oct. 31 at the 3rd Battalion Infirmary, Gerzat, France. Along with many others, he was buried with military honors in a temporary cemetery near Gerzat. His family in Lucas County was not informed of his death until late December.


After the war was over, the families of those who had died in service in France were offered two options --- permanent burial in a military cemetery there or repatriation. Henry's family chose to have his remains returned to the United States.

Early in the evening of Friday, June 2, 1921, two flag-draped caskets arrived at the C.B.&Q. Depot and were met by Chariton Legionnaires. One contained Henry's remains; the other, those of Carl L. Caviness, the first Lucas Countyan to die in combat during World War I. He had been killed in France by a sniper on May 20, 1918, at the age of 21.

Henry's casket was taken that evening to the farm home of his parents near Cain Church. Carl's remains were taken to the Beardsley undertaking parlors, then located on North Grand Street on the current site of Chariton High School's newer north section. Funeral services for both were planned on Sunday.

Although the Johnsons were Lutheran, the decision was made to hold Henry's funeral in the neighborhood where he had grown up and so Cain Church opened its doors for the 10 a.m. service as more than 300 family members, friends, neighbors and active and former military personnel gathered. A delegation of Civil War veterans arrived and was seated as a unit as were the soldiers who had accompanied Henry's remains from the Johnson home to the church.

Following the service, a funeral procession wound its way through the English Township hills to Chariton where Henry was buried with full military honors accorded by Chariton Legionnaires in what then was the far southeast corner of the Chariton Cemetery beside four siblings who had died as infants. 


Many of those who had attended Henry's service then moved to the courthouse square to await the beginning of last rites for Caviness just after noon. Because Carl had been Lucas County's first combat loss, this would be a much larger service.

An escort of approximately 100 ex-servicemen escorted Caviness's flag-draped casket down Grand Street to the courhouse lawn where a brief service was held.

Following the service, a procession headed by the Chariton Band, Legion buglers, colour guard and flag bearers and unformed delegations from Russell and Chariton moved from the square to the cemetery, followed by mourners in an estimated 200 automobiles.

Following graveside rites in the northwest section of the cemetery, a considerable distance from where Henry had been buried earlier in the day, the U.S. flag that had draped the Caviness casket as it made its way from France to Chariton was presented to Chariton Legionnaires, now members of Carl L. Caviness American Legion Post No. 102.

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