Thomas Gibb Johnson remains somewhat of a mystery, even to his family.
Most of what is known about Johnson comes from census and other official records. And that is precious little. There are no anecdotes, no family stories, no photographs to shed light on the man whose World War I heroics have long gone unheralded.
Family historians know more about Johnson’s father and previous generations than they do about him.
Johnson was born June 5, 1895 in Lynchburg, Va., the son of Samuel Henry Johnson and Rebecca Gibbs Johnson. In addition to his five siblings, Johnson had another brother and sister born to his father and his first wife, who died of consumption as a young mother in 1880.
The elder Johnson came from a line on his mother’s side that reached back to Colonial Virginia and beyond, to England.He met Rebecca Gibbs while both were living in Lynchburg. The 30-something widower was working as a canal boat operator on the James River; Rebecca was a seamstress living, along with her parents, in her brother’s home. The elder Johnson was a mate on the Packet Boat Marshall as it bore the body of Civil War General Stonewall Jackson from Richmond to Lexington for burial in May 1863. The elder Johnson later became a policeman for the city of Lynchburg and served as its elected city sergeant for more than 20 years, until his death in 1911.
As a young man, Thomas Gibb Johnson lived with his parents in Lynchburg and attended the Virginia Commercial School. On June 5, 1917, his 22nd birthday, he and his older brother, John Gray Johnson, registered for the draft. Thomas Johnson’s draft registration card noted that he was tall, of medium build, with brown eyes.
A year later, Johnson was drafted and within weeks was shipped overseas. His war record is linked – although so quietly as to be almost ignored – with that of Sgt. Alvin York, the most celebrated hero of the first World War. Like York, Johnson was a Southerner in primarily Yankee company. He was a private in Company G of the Second Battalion of the 328th Infantry Regiment. On the cold, rainy morning of October 8, 1918 in the Argonne Forest of France, three squads, led by Sgt. Bernard Early, were ordered to penetrate enemy lines to silence German machine gun nests tearing into the Allies. It sounded like a suicide mission.
The patrol, skirting around to the left and coming at the Germans from behind,first surprised a group of enemy soldiers lolling around after breakfast and captured them. Then, after fierce fighting that killed and wounded many of their comrades, York and seven unwounded privates – including Johnson -- walked out of the forest, having killed 25 Germans and captured 132.
After the war ended, both Thomas and John Johnson returned to Lynchburg. Thomas worked as a stock clerk in wholesale shoes. At some point in the mid to late 1920s, the two brothers moved to Denison, Texas. No one is sure what led them all the way to Texas. They came from Virginia stock that rarely ventured far from home.Perhaps a World War I buddy encouraged them to make their way south. At any rate, by the 1930 census, John’s household included not only younger brother Thomas but also their widowed mother and three nieces and nephews, children of a sister who had died of typhoid fever in 1924.
Apparently neither brother married. . Their mother died in 1931 and was buried in Fairview Cemetery in Denison. In 1939, older brother John died.
Thomas Gibb Johnson lived out of the limelight, perhaps trying to forget all he had seen and done overseas. Articles published in New England publications in the 1920s about the “other 16" who fought with York rarely mentioned Johnson. Some mistakenly gave him the middle initial “C”; onesaid he was from Brooklyn. Apparently his invitation to a 1929 ceremony in Washington honoring the surviving squad members was returned, unopened.
Johnson’s connection to the famous battle apparently came to public light after the movie “Sergeant. York” came out in 1941. The newspaper in Denison said it found Johnson “living quietly...nursing nerves shattered by the war.”
In September1961,Johnson suffered a heart attack and died. He also was buried in Fairview Cemetery in Denison. The Denison newspaper carried a small story and photograph. The photograph showed six World War I veterans carrying the casket.
It was not until Johnson’s hometown newspaper, The Lynchburg News & Advance, wrote about him in a Fourth of July package in 2008, that Johnson descendants in Virginia even knew that a war hero was resting in its family tree.
Contributed by Kay Tucker Addis of Virginia Beach, VA, a native of Lynchburg, Va., and great-niece of Thomas Gibb Johnson. She shares a birthday with Johnson.
Obituary of Thomas G. Johnson over record of burial. Note the stark contrast between Johnson Funeral (or that of any other survivor from this battle) and the York Funeral.