It was one of the most fantastic exploits of World War I.
A little more than a month before the end of the war, the story goes, Sgt. Alvin York just about single-handedly forced the surrender of more than 130 Germans during a key battle in France.
York became one of America’s legendary war heroes — a standing that is anchored in history by the popular 1941 movie “Sergeant York.”
In reality, 16 other men were there fighting and dying alongside him.
One of them was Thomas Gibb Johnson, born and raised in Lynchburg.
York tried to credit his comrades in the patrol, but most faded into obscurity as quickly as his star rose as the great hero of World War I.
While a few eventually became local heroes, all are more or less footnotes to the York legend.
Except Johnson. His connection has been all but lost to history.
For the first time, The News & Advance tells the story of this forgotten and unrecognized hero from the Hill City.
World War I soldiers fought in the most brutal of wars.
It came at a time when massed marching formations and horse-mounted cavalry clashed with machine guns, airplanes, poison gas and days-long artillery barrages.
Period photos show mounted cavalry soldiers and their horses both donning gas masks. Soldiers’ tales tell of daylong artillery bombardments that buried men alive while unearthing bodies from battles years earlier.
That was the horror of battle in October 1918 in the Argonne Forest in France — where Thomas Johnson was in the midst of fighting just weeks after shipping overseas.
The armistice that would end World War I was about a month away when York, Johnson and other soldiers of the 82nd Division’s 328th Infantry Regiment started off toward the Germans at daybreak on Oct. 8, 1918.
Just west of the village Châtel Chéhéry in the northern end of the Argonne Forest, waves of American soldiers swept downhill into a valley.
There, German machine guns on the Americans’ right and left tore into their ranks. Soldiers said the machine gun fire was so heavy it cut down trees and bushes around them.
On the far southern end of the attack, Johnson’s platoon sergeant ordered the survivors of four squads of men — York and Johnson among them — to sneak around and silence the machine guns tearing at their ranks from the left side of the valley.
“I figured at all cost the machine guns had to be silenced,” said platoon sergeant Harry Parsons in a 1928 affidavit. “It was an awful responsibility for a noncommissioned officer to order his men to go to what looked like certain death. But I figured it had to be done … I now know it was the wisest decision I ever made.”
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Johnson and York’s patrol first encountered a group of Germans having breakfast and quickly captured them. Shortly after, though, machine-gunners hidden nearby fired on the Americans, killing six and wounding all the noncommissioned officers except York.
According to sworn statements from the survivors, the German prisoners shielded some of the Americans. Others were able to find cover in the dense brush and shoot back at the Germans.
Where Johnson ended up in the firefight is not clear from historic records. York, though, was pinned between the prisoners and the machine-gunners. According to his version of events, the machine-gunners could not shoot him without hitting their comrades, allowing him to shoot enough of the Germans to force their surrender.
At the end of the fight, York and Johnson and six other unwounded privates walked out of the forest with 132 Germans. The machine guns were silenced.
Percy Beardsley, a squad mate of Johnson’s, was quoted in the Nov. 8, 1964, edition of The New Haven Register as saying, “I doubt very much if York did it all single-handedly; after it was all over, they asked him what happened and he just sorta gave his version of the story.”
Beardsley, who told the Connecticut newspaper that he and other members of the patrol also shot at the Germans during the action, said if any one person was to get credit it should be York, but he also quipped, “Someone once asked me how it was possible, how York captured 132 Germans.
“I just told him I guess he surrounded them.”
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History has not been kind to Thomas Johnson. Even establishing his presence at York’s side is daunting.
The Lynchburg man’s service records are believed to have burned in a 1973 National Archives fire in St. Louis. The best record of his service, a post-war roster of the 328th Infantry, has him joining York’s company two weeks after the Medal of Honor firefight — a record discredited by other documentation.
While surviving family members have been identified for other members of the patrol, Johnson’s story was unknown to his relatives located by The News & Advance.
“Johnson is the great mystery of this whole thing,” said Bob D’Angelo of Woodbridge, Conn., a great nephew of Sgt. Bernard Early, the man who led the mission to take out the machine guns.
Records kept by Lynchburg clerks during the war show only that Johnson was among about a half dozen soldiers with ‘J’ last names to be drafted on June 24, 1918.
After the war, when the 82nd Division’s commanding officers sought to have York’s initial Distinguished Service Cross award upgraded to the Medal of Honor, it appears Johnson was the only one of the seven unwounded soldiers not to give a sworn statement. If his statement exists, it is the only one never to have been published.
A 1929 newspaper article in the Hartford Courant, in a region that contributed at least three patrol members, lists Johnson as one of two veterans of the fight whose invitations to an Army War College reunion were returned unopened.
Other evidence is more conclusive.
A 1920 Hartford Courant article about Sgt. Early’s role in the fight references Johnson as someone who could back up his version of events.
A Ph.D. dissertation by Middle Tennessee State University professor Thomas Nolan, a leading York researcher, used post-war letters and information from York’s biographer to put Johnson in York’s squad the day of the famous fight. Affidavits signed after the war by Johnson’s platoon sergeant and by Pvt. Michael Saccina, another member of the patrol, put him there as well.
Also, The News & Advance recently discovered an April 1930 letter written by Gen. J.R. Lindsey to the War Department specifically requesting a citation for Johnson and others not initially recognized for their roles in the fight.
The fight for that recognition, though, appears to have been carried out on his behalf by other members of the patrol. There is no evidence Johnson wanted anything to do with the affair after he returned home — even as the Lynchburg News ran front-page stories about York. His obituary indicates he was never able to cope with his combat experience.
The extent of Johnson’s service files returned from a National Archives information request show only that Johnson was discharged on May 28, 1919, at Camp Meade, Md., and sent back to Lynchburg with $85.80 for his last month of service.
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Local records shed some light on Johnson’s civilian life.
His father, Samuel H. Johnson Sr., was a mate on the packet boat Marshall that transported Gen. Stonewall Jackson’s body up the James River from Lynchburg in 1863. When Johnson was 5, his father was elected city sergeant of the Lynchburg Police Department, a post he held for 21 years until his death.
According to U.S. Census Bureau records, Johnson was born in 1895 to Samuel H. and Rebecca Johnson. Thomas, the second-youngest of eight children, grew up at 414 Ninth St. at the present-day site of the police department and Lynchburg General District Court building adjacent to the Old Courthouse museum.
The family had extensive landholdings in the city, according to Lynchburg Circuit Court property records, and owned much of the land on Kemper Street now occupied by the Glenn A. Trent Auto & Truck Service Center.
Before the war, census records and city directories list Johnson as a student and a clerk.
His draft card, filled out on June 5, 1917, the day of his 22nd birthday, lists him as a student at the Virginia Commercial College, whose legacy continues today as the Miller-Motte Technical College. Johnson is described as tall, of medium build with light hair and brown eyes, although no pictures of him have been found.
When he returned to Lynchburg, city directories list Johnson as a clerk at the Beasley Shoe Co. and later with Craddock-Terry. He’s listed as a bookkeeper in 1928, but disappears in 1929.
Local property records show that by the late 1920s, surviving members of the Johnson family had sold all of their landholdings in the city. The 1930 census shows that by 1929, Johnson was living with his older brother John, mother Rebecca and three of his sister’s orphans in Denison, Texas.
A city directory there lists him as a produce store worker living in a rooming home.
The last record of Johnson, an obituary published in 1961 by The Herald in Denison, gives some insight into his post-war life.
“Thomas Gibb Johnson, 66, received little recognition as one of the 10 men who lived through the fierce battle in which his group cut down a German machine gun battalion. His role in the battle came to light when the movie on Sgt. York’s life was made. The Herald found Johnson living quietly here nursing nerves shattered by the war.”
Johnson died in Denison of a heart attack on Sept. 23, 1961.
Lynchburg native Kay Addis, the granddaughter of Johnson’s sister Daisy, said she was surprised to hear Johnson’s story after 20 years of researching her father’s family.
“I was very surprised and quite proud to learn that my grand-uncle played such an important part in World War I,” said Addis, a retired editor and vice president of The Virginian-Pilot in Norfolk. “I had heard of Sgt. York, of course, but I never knew one of my ancestors fought alongside him….
“Whether or not he gets the recognition he deserves, 90 years after the fact, Thomas Johnson’s heroics will from now on be more widely known by his family and his hometown.”