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Historians team up to research Largo soldier killed during WWI
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Photo by CHRIS GEORGE
Worth Edward Johnson’s grave can be found at the historic Largo City Cemetery. Johnson was 17 when he was killed in France during World War I and was buried in a military cemetery there. His remains were later taken home, but a French historian is researching soldiers who were buried in the French cemetery and has enlisted the help of Largo historians to learn about Johnson in an effort to honor the soldiers.
LARGO – On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany to enter World War I. At the time, Worth Edward Johnson was a 15-year-old student at Largo High School. He was a member of the Packers’ band and played the cornet.

Six days later, he was no longer just a boy who played an instrument for the school band. He was a soldier in the U.S. Army who played the bugle for the 54th Infantry Regiment of the 6th Division.

He was deployed to France and as a member of the American Expeditionary Forces, the first group of soldiers in U.S. history sent abroad to defend a foreign country, he fought alongside French and British troops.

On Oct. 9, 1918, enemy artillery fire severely wounded the 17-year-old doughboy, and he died of his wounds in Linthal, a village in northeast France near the German border. He was just the second soldier from Largo killed during the war.

Nearly a century later, French historian Hubert Martin has enlisted the help of Largo historians Marilyn Short and Charlie Harper to learn about and honor Johnson, who was one of 49 soldiers killed in Martin’s hometown of Linthal and buried in the Franco-American military cemetery in the Oberlauchen region of France.

“Worth Johnson was the youngest soldier fallen in our mountains of Linthal,” Martin wrote in an email to the Leader. “He is the main symbol of the World War I AEF. He was a young boy and a musician; he was in the beginning of his life as he crossed the sea to help our Alsace region come back to France. This means a lot for me.”

Martin, president of a Memorial Historical Society in Alsace, France, and member of the Alsace-United States Friendship Association, is collecting information on all 49 soldiers and has been working with the U.S. Consulate in Strasbourg, France, and the U.S. Embassy in Paris in preparation for a September 2018 memorial ceremony where the cemetery was located.

‘It just kind of blossomed’

Martin learned online that Johnson’s remains were returned home to Largo, where he is buried in the family plot at Largo’s historic City Cemetery. He emailed the city in hopes of learning about the doughboy and his home.

City staff had trouble finding Johnson’s final resting place, so they turned to Largo Area Historical Society members. Within minutes, they had some answers.

But that was just the beginning of the fact-finding mission for Short and Harper, who would learn much more about the first two soldiers from Largo to die in the war: Johnson and Ralph Heisler. They also learned more about Largo’s role in World War I and even uncovered the names of more Largo residents who had fought and died.

“We were sort of familiar with Heisler and Johnson because we’ve already done a little bit of research,” Short said. “But when we started this time, it just kind of blossomed.”

Short researched the Johnson family as far back as 1837, when Worth’s grandfather was born in Indiana. He would later fight and die in the Civil War.

Worth’s father, Ira Johnson, left Indiana for Nebraska, where he and his three children lived in a sod house. He was assigned a postmaster position in Nebraska, but because of health problems, he moved to Florida and took Worth with him. Worth’s two older siblings, including his sister, Vivian, stayed in Nebraska. She would remain there until she passed away in 1993 at the age of 102.

Upon arriving in Largo, Ira Johnson continued the laborious job of delivering mail to the entire area by horse and buggy.

Among the new documents Short found was a list of military personnel who left from New York to France on July 6, 1918. Worth Johnson was one of those names.

Short said once Johnson and his division got to France, they left for Linthal, where they erected two hospitals.

“Worth died on Oct. 9, so he was not there very long, just a few months,” she said. “So he was probably in one of those hospitals when he was finally hurt.”

Martin emailed the city in the beginning of March, and Short said she has been doing research every day since then. She and Harper have exchanged numerous emails with Martin, with each side learning new information about the beginning and end of Johnson’s life.

Short said she now has a new appreciation for the link that France and the U.S. share.

And while the experience has been a lot of work, she said it’s been a labor of love.

“I’ve really enjoyed doing it,” she said. “And now I’ve talked to my kids and they are all excited about it. And they are grown men. But that’s the whole idea is to seal that love for history back into our young people.”

Short said she also found new documents and photographs of Heisler, who joined the Army in 1917 and was assigned to the famous 42nd Rainbow Division as a machine gunner. On July 28, 1918 – just one month after arriving in France – Heisler died while manning his machine gun post during the battle of Chateau-Thierry. Heisler is buried at the Oise-Aisne American Cemetery in Seringes-et-Nesles, Aisne, France.

During World War II, John S. Taylor Jr. donated property at 130 First Ave. SW in Largo to the local American Legion. The Post, which chartered in 1940, was named Heisler-Johnson American Legion Post 119 in honor of the two young Largo soldiers who lost their lives in France.

“It feels so good to be doing this. To be doing research into Largo’s history,” Harper said. “The Largo you see today, where Heisler and Johnson came from, is not the Largo of 1916 or 1917. It’s hard for people who came here in the ‘70s or ‘80s to visualize what Marilyn and I saw in the 1950s. In the 1950s, Largo was still much like it had been for the previous 50 years. But now, it’s so totally different and you’ve got to reach out to grasp that history. This place has been around since 1843 and that’s the point that we are really trying to get across.”

Man on a mission

Martin shares Harper’s sentiment about history, hoping to share the details of soldiers’ sacrifices with his community. Since 2015, he has been working to learn more about their lives, families and even make contact with ancestors.

“We want to share this with the people of our valley,” he wrote.

He said thus far he only has a complete view of about 30 soldiers. For the others, he only has their date of death, birthday and birthplace.

Since the beginning of his research, he’s had more than 100 contacts in the U.S., including members of historical societies, American Legion posts, libraries and newspapers.

“Every day, I get between one and three emails with information, photos, contacts,” he said. “It’s really a great human experience. It’s a web of friendship and brotherhood to thank these brave young soldiers.”

Much like in Largo, he said his inquiries have helped communities in the U.S. and France better appreciate their own history – and hopefully learn from it.

“I think (and feel) that these inquiries help ourself to better know our common history, to know that we need each other to win together,” he said. “This is very important in a time where each country tries to retire within oneself, to reject others, to forget the past. The sacrifice of these young U.S. soldiers is also a lesson against individualism and racism, especially middle of our president election, where hate against foreigners is so usual by Mrs. Le Pen.”

In September 2018, Martin will help inaugurate a new monument at the cemetery in place of the original that was destroyed in 1940 by the Nazis as they invaded Alsace.

Honoring Largo’s forgotten sacrifices

Harper and Short also don’t want the sacrifices of Largo’s soldiers to be forgotten.

That’s why they hope this is just the beginning of a new project, which they started by creating a video presentation about Largo’s role in the war.

“We want to expand what we’ve done here into World War I in Largo and its effects,” Harper said. “And not just these two, but all the other soldiers and sailors that were in the war – and several more died in the war.”

Harper said that includes members of one of the area’s famous families – Belcher. Harper said a member of the family was a lieutenant in the Navy who served in France and probably died of influenza.

“I think we deserve it to the families of the other, we think, four more soldiers that were killed in World War I and at least to acknowledge the other 60, 70, 80 people from this area who served,” he said.

He also wants to highlight the fact that people from the Largo area fought in the Civil War and Spanish-American War.

“But that’s the type of things that the towns of America should be proud of,” he said. “Their sons and daughters have always come forth to serve this country. It’s continuing to this day. You hear all this other nonsense and everything, but the everyday life of America goes on. And part of that life is defending this country.”

Anyone with information about Johnson or Heisler is asked to contact the Largo Area Historical Society at charper1@tampabay.rr.com or by calling 727-742-6361 or 727-584-4906.

Chris George is editor of the Largo Leader. He can be reached at 727-397-5563, ext. 316, or by email at cgeorge@TBNweekly.com.
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