The sad news of C. Elwood Johnson’s passing arrived recently from his son Phil, and a service honoring this World War II Navy veteran took place at the Delaware Veterans Cemetery on Dec. 6, 2018. Coincidentally, this was the same date for the funeral of another World War II Navy hero, President George H.W. Bush.
Unlike the 41st president, Johnson’s service as a pharmacist mate on the U.S.S. Relief in the South Pacific, earning him the nickname “Doc,” has received little acclaim beyond the awareness and pride of family and friends. Perhaps the Broadway show and popular film “South Pacific” is an appropriate requiem for Doc, his shipmates and other unsung heroes from that era.
Doc Johnson had an ancestor, Pvt. John Gray, who served during the Civil War with the 1st Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteer Artillery. During his lifetime, Doc had the unusual and fortunate experience of attending both the 75th and 150th anniversaries of the Battle of Gettysburg that took place in July 1863.
As a 13-year-old, Doc’s father introduced him to the Gettysburg battlefield on the special occasion of the battle’s 75th anniversary in July 1938. While there, father and son were standing on the curbside of Baltimore Street, watching a motorcade that included President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who rode in an open vehicle.
Roosevelt was on his way to dedicate the Eternal Light Peace Memorial constructed on Oak Hill just north of the town to honor the Union and Confederate soldiers who fought there in 1863. Young Doc, using a box camera he brought along for the occasion, was able to photograph the president as his motorcade drove by on its way to the dedication.
When the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg was celebrated a few years ago, in July 2013, Doc attended once again, despite his advancing age of 88 years. It turned out to be a repeat of a father-and-son event, given that Doc’s son Phil escorted him to the small town in southcentral Pennsylvania for the occasion.
During my visits with Doc over the past several years, he would share stories about his ancestor who fought in the Civil War. He owned a number of Civil War artifacts that belonged to Pvt. John Gray, including a sword, musket and other items.
Included among a number of Civil War-related items that Doc gave me as gifts is a poster of Abraham Lincoln. Inscribed at the bottom of this poster is the following quote:
“What constitutes the bulwark of our own liberty and independence? It is not our frowning battlements, our bristling sea coasts, the guns of our war steamers, or the strength of our gallant and disciplined army. These are not our reliance against a resumption of tyranny in our fair land. All of them may be turned against our liberties, without making us stronger or weaker for the struggle. Our reliance is in the love of liberty which God has planted in our bosoms. Our defense is in the preservation of the spirit which prizes liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands, everywhere. Destroy this spirit, and you have planted the seeds of despotism at your own doors.”
This framed poster and the sentiments of President Lincoln, shown sitting in a stately pose in profile, are a reminder of Doc Johnson, who served his country during a world war, was a solid and productive citizen during his lifetime, and who treasured memories of the Civil War in which an ancestor fought to preserve his liberty. The poster hangs on a wall at home beside a rendition of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
Another reminder of Doc Johnson is a gift he brought back from the trip with his son to Gettysburg in July 2013. Hanging in our entrance hall is a framed print with the words “150th Gettysburg Anniversary” superimposed over tattered Union and Confederate flags (issued by the Gettysburg Convention & Visitor’s Bureau).
On the back of the frame is a printed sticker that reads “Mr. C.E. Johnson” with his address in Ocean View. The poster and print together, and the sentiments contained therein, provide an appropriate eulogy to a man who loved his family and friends, and who served his country.
Tom Ryan is the author of the award-winning “Spies, Scouts & Secrets in the Gettysburg Campaign” and “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War,” of which signed copies are available at Bethany Beach Books, at Browseabout Books in Rehoboth and at Allison’s Card Smart in Milford. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or visit his website at www.tomryan-civilwar.com.
By Tom Ryan
Special to the Coastal Point