Sampson native Walter Johnson died serving his country in France during World War I when he was just 17. Nearly a century after he perished, a grave marker bearing his name rests in the middle of an expansive field south of Roseboro, its location very much a mystery — one woman has made it her mission to fill in the blanks.
Debbie Chunn, who is originally from Greenville and now resides near Newton Grove, read a story at the end of May about how Norman Coe discovered the marker while doing some surveying work in a field off Ebenezer Forest Road. Close to Memorial Day and in tribute to the fallen soldier, Coe placed flags at the marker for the teenager who died so many years ago.
The headstone states that Walter Johnson was born Oct. 3, 1901 and died in the service of his country in France, June 14, 1918. Chunn was intrigued and two months ago, set out on her quest for more information.
“It just hit my interest,” said Chunn. “Who is this young person? I just was curious about the whole story, it just fascinated me so much. Who was this individual, and why was he left alone?”
She pulled Census records from 1910 and 1920, war records, draft sheets, property deeds, death certificates and scoured for everything she could find tracing family histories on Ancestry.com.
Chunn found that Walter was the son of Ollin and Mattie Johnson. Along with Walter, the couple had three daughters, Margie (Marjah), Flora and Jessie. Another son, Willie Lee Johnson of Washington, D.C., who was not on record up to the 1920 Census, was listed as another of Mattie’s sons and the contact person upon her death in 1980.
Mattie’s gravemarker is located in Sandhill Cemetery and, while there are discrepancies for family members between Census records, death certificates and tangible markers, Mattie’s grave marker lists her as living from 1882-1980. Her death certificate lists 1894 as her birth year.
According to Census records, the family lived in the McDaniels area south of Roseboro, where Ollin Johnson was a farmer. His WWI card states that Johnson was inducted into the military in Clinton on March 30, 1918. It lists his cause of death as pneumonia, however Chunn has been told it is possible that he was killed in action.
Chunn has asked around about the marker, contacted various local people who might have some historical knowledge about the marker and has come to little more than vastly piqued interests on the other end. Nearly everything she has gotten has been through her own research, which has taken her to the State Archives Building in Raleigh for war records and led her to make calls to the WWI Museum in Kansas City, Mo., the VA Office in Washington, D.C., and even to the French WWI Museum across the pond.
She was told by representatives of the Kansas City museum that families of black soldiers who died during that time frame were notified and asked whether they wanted the body to stay overseas or transported back to the United States in a standard military casket. Chunn said she does not know whether the Sampson field is Walter’s final resting place or not.
“If he was shipped back home, somewhere that casket made it back to Clinton and was received by a person, because you had to sign for it,” said Chunn. She noted many of the local train depots are obviously no more. The VA in Washington D.C. could not disclose any information because Chunn is not a family member and the curator at the French museum, which Chunn noted is renown for having detailed records of American soldiers who died there, had no record of Johnson.
Chunn, however, pointed to the star perched above Walter Johnson’s name on his headstone — she said it is an indication of a Croix de Guerre (or Cross of War), a military decoration of France created in 1915. However, service banners designed in 1917 would depict blue stars for each family member serving in the Armed Forces of the United States during any period of war or hostilities in which forces were engaged.
While nearly all Census records, and his headstone, list Johnson’s age as 17 at his death, the roll call uncovered at the Archives Building in Raleigh shows his age as 21 at the time he was inducted, and 22 at his death. Nearly every soldier on the Clinton, Sampson County roll call that included Johnson was listed at least 21 years old — as with Johnson, that likely was not true.
Her research over the last two months has led her from Sampson County to the nation’s capital, to the center of the country and overseas, but the adventure has brought her full circle as Chunn has located some possible family members locally. She hopes to be able to talk to them in the near future. She has her own theories on the grave marker that sits in the middle of a field, but has no real answers.
“I have tons and tons of questions. My speculation was that the family was farmers, and worked for farmers, and they may have had a homestead there,” Chunn said. “I think they wanted him buried near the home place.”
Looking at old property records obtained at the Sampson County Register of Deeds, Chunn found that Ollin worked on a farm owned by Ida Rich, that was then deeded to Adolphus Williamson. Ollin Johnson was working for N.H. Larkins at the time of his death in 1922, according to his death certificate. The 126-acre property is currently owned by Alston Glenwood Fryar Jr. There are soybeans being tended to on the land, sprouting up around the marker.
Chunn said, while she is full of questions, she has also been immersed by those interested in the marker and the story behind it. Many she has talked with have expressed their desire to help preserve the monument, possibly even move it to a family plot if the family wants it there.
There are so many old graves that are unmarked, to find one by itself in the middle of a field that can be traced to a history that extends thousands of miles and an ocean away, is intriguing, Chunn said.
“It’s so cool,” she remarked, “because this is Sampson County history.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at email@example.com.