Where generations rest
Two Warren County men buried among Union defenders at Gettysburg National Cemetery
It should come as no surprise by now that I enjoy making connections to events and people from the county that can be found in other places.
Last weekend, one of my best friends got married so I was in the southeastern part of the state and had the opportunity to stop at Gettysburg on the return trip.
This story has nothing to do with the Battle of Gettysburg, though.
President Abraham Lincoln dedicated the nation’s first national cemetery on the Gettysburg battlefield in November 1863. I think we’re familiar with the speech he gave that day.
“Four score and seven years ago….”
While over 3,000 men of the Union Army were buried at the site (and a few Confederates, which is quite the story on its own), what is now the Gettysburg National Cemetery grew beyond those initial burials and is the final resting place for hundreds of others eligible for interment in a national cemetery.
It now takes special federal cation to be buried there but that wasn’t the case when two Warren County men were repatriated in the wake of World War II in the late 1940s.
When I prepared a list that ran on Memorial Day of all of the county’s fatalities from World War II, I noticed that two men were laid to rest at Gettysburg – Sgt. Earl V. Johnson and Pvt. David E. Leslie.
There’s a disappointing lack of information on many of America’s war dead from World War II. Whether it hasn’t been long enough to be considered “historical” or whether the sheer number – over 400,000 – has proved too daunting, I think it’s important to tell these stories to the degree that we can when we can.
And as these stories often do, additional information might “shake loose” on the lives and services of these two men.
Earl Johnson was old for an infantry sergeant at the age of 35 in the summer of 19444.
Johnson, the son of Alfred and Selma Swanson Johnson, was born in Lynch, Pa. (Yes, I had to look it up. It’s the intersection of 666 and Blue Jay Rd. in Forest County). His father was deceased – he had been a laboror, per Johnson’s birth certificate, and his mother – a housekeeper – was living in Warren by the time Johnson was killed.
Findagrave records indicate that Johnson enlisted in the pre-war army on September 15, 1925 at Fort Porter, NY when he would have been about 17.
During World War II, he was assigned to Co. F, 39th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division.
He died on Aug. 4, 1943 at Sicily though it’s unclear whether he was killed in action or died of his wounds on that day.
As was the case with many others during this period, Johnson would have initially been buried at a local cemetery. Once the war was over, families were given the option to return their loved one’s remains to the states or leave them in the foreign cemeteries near where they fell.
Johnson’s family chose to return him and he was buried at Gettysburg on Dec. 2, 1948.
A note in the Nov. 9, 1943 Warren Times-Mirror adds some additional insight into Johnson’s service.
“Mrs. Selma Swanson, 220 Second avenue, has received the Military Order of the Purple Heart which was awarded posthumously to her son, Sgt. Earl V. Johnson, for military merit and for wounds received in action and resulting in his death August 4, 1943. Mrs. Swanson also recently received a personal letter from General George Marshall, chief of staff of the War Department, extending sympathy and stating In part; “I hope you may find consolation in the knowledge that your son, Earl Johnson, has made the great sacrifice in order that Americans may continue to live as a free people under government of their own choosing. He died while serving as a soldier of his country, More cannot be said in honor of his memory.”
Private David Earl Leslie was born on Christmas Day 1916 in Sheffield to Guy Edward and Sarah Jane Simpson Leslie.
“His father worked as a truck driver for an oil company and farmed,” according to a blog post highlighting members of Leslie’s 116th Regiment. “In 1940, David was living in Mead, Pennsylvania with his wife, Elizabeth A. and working as a laborer in a junkyard. He reported a 1939 income of $286.”
That post notes that Leslie was divorced when he was drafted in November 1943.
“He was sent to Europe after his basic training and transferred from the replacement depot to L Company, 116th Infantry on 15 Jul 1944. PVT Leslie was killed in action on 30 Aug 1944” in France.
He was also repatriated and re-interred in 1949 at the Gettysburg National Cemetery.