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#4 – Lester Johnson and the American Ambulance Corp – Part 3

To continue with Lester Johnson’s story, a week after the first newspaper announcement, the Kinsley Mercury reported:

“P. H. Johnson received a telegram Sunday from his son, Lester Johnson, saying he was sailing that day at 3:30 with a party of medical students on the steamship Rochambeau for France, where they will serve in the ambulance corps of the French army for an enlistment period of six months.  The ship is sailing by way of Brazil to avoid the more dangerous submarine districts.”

Because the United States was not in the war, and Lester was going to France as a volunteer and not in the military, he did require a passport.  We found a copy of Lester’s application in a book of passport applications up to the year 1925 that was compiled by Ed Carlson, our go-to-historian on Kinsley and Edwards County.

Lester’s passport verified that Edward’s father had emigrated from Denmark to the United States in 1870.  Lester was going to France for “Service in the American Ambulance corps,” leaving from New York, sailing on board the Rochambeau on February 3, 1917 (ship pictured below).

Lester is described as 23 years old, 5’ 4” tall with a high forehead, blue eyes, straight nose, medium mouth, round chin, brown hair, fair complexion and round face. It states that he was engaged in hospital work.

Unluckily for Lester, On February 1, Germany returned to a policy of unrestricted submarine warfare that it had previously suspended in September, 1915 in response to pressure from the United States and other neutral countries.

You may recall that early in 1915, Germany declared the area around the British Isles a war zone, in which all merchant ships, including those from neutral countries, would be attacked by the German navy.  After several attacks, the Lusitania was sunk by a German U-boat on May 7, 1915.  The Lusitania was a British passenger ship, and 1,201 people drowned including 128 Americans. The Germans cited that the Lusitania was carrying a supply of munitions to justify the attack.   U.S. President Woodrow Wilson demanded an end to German attacks against unarmed merchant ships, and by September, 1915, the German navy was persuaded to suspend U-boat warfare altogether.  But the German army and navy ultimately convinced Kaiser Wilhelm that the U-boat was essential for the war strategy and victory, and it was reinstated on February 1, 1917.

The next post will be Lester’s own words in the form of a letter written aboard the Rochambeau and published in the March 8, 1917 edition of the Kinsley Graphic.

#3 – Lester Johnson and the American Ambulance Corps – Part 2

I became very intrigued with Lester Johnson, the volunteer ambulance driver, who was the topic of my last post.  I wanted to try to find out more about him.

I discovered in the library burial file that Lester’s mother, Dora B. Jacobson Johnson, died on May 13, 1913.  According to her obituary published in the Kinsley Graphic, she had been born in Bergen, Norway, on February 25, 1873.  She came to America with her parents when she was 7 years old.  They settled in Wisconsin where she would come to marry a Danish immigrant, Peter H. Johnson, in 1890.   Lester, was born in Marshfield, Wisconsin on March 27, 1993.

A few years after Lester was born, Mrs. Johnson contracted tuberculosis.  Seeking a better climate for her condition, the family tried living in Albuquerque and the Ozarks before coming to Kinsley in 1903.   When Dora died on May 13, 1913, her daughter Juanita (age 22), son Vernon (age 18 and just graduating from high school), and 1 1/2 year old baby Richard were at her side.  Lester was not there as he was a sophomore at the University of Kansas.

We can only wonder if it were his mother’s long illness that led Lester to pursue a pre-med course.  Reference Specialist Mindy Babarskis of the University of Kansas Spencer Research Library kindly scanned pages from the Jayhawker 1915 yearbook for me.  They record Lester’s graduation from KU and membership in two honorary fraternities, Acacia and Nu Sigma Nu.  Lester’s KU graduation picture accompanies this post.  Ms Babarskis did say that he did not continue to pursue a degree in medicine at KU.

What we do know, is 18 months after graduation, he became a volunteer ambulance driver in France.

1915 KU graduation picture

#2 – Lester Johnson & the American Volunteer Ambulance Corp – Part 1

I found the following tidbit in the February 2, 1917 issue of the Kinsley Mercury.

“Word has been received from Lester Johnson that he, in company with twelve other young men attending medical college, are expecting to sail for France the sixth of February to take up his duties in the American Ambulance Corps.”

Digging in the library archive, I discovered that Lester Johnson graduated from Kinsley High School in 1911.  I was curious about why he was joining the American Ambulance Corp two months before the United States would enter the war.  Doing a little research, I found that the American Volunteer Motor Ambulance Corps, also known as the Norton-Harjes Ambulance Corp was started in London in the fall of 1914 by noted archeologist Richard Norton, the son of a Harvard professor, and Henry Herman Harjes, a French millionaire banker who wished to help Norton by donating funds and ambulances.

The Corps was established to assist the movement of wounded Allied troops from the battlefields to hospitals in France. It began with two cars and four drivers and was associated with the British Red Cross and St. John Ambulance.

The poet Robert W. Service joined the Ambulance Corps in 1915.  Perhaps you remember him from your high school lit book as the writer of “The Cremation of Sam McGee.”  Before he became famous for his Alaskan narrative poetry, he wrote a book of war poetry, Rhymes of a Red Cross Man, in 1916.  The first poem, entitled “Foreword” begins:

I’ve tinkered at my bits of rhymes
In weary, woeful, waiting times;
In doleful hours of battle-din,
Ere yet they brought the wounded in;
Through vigils of the fateful night,
In lousy barns by candle-light;
In dug-outs, sagging and aflood,
On stretchers stiff and bleared with blood;
By ragged grove, by ruined road,

By hearths accurst where Love abode;
By broken altars, blackened shrines
I’ve tinkered at my bits of rhymes.

You can download Rhymes of a Red Cross Man for free to your computer or device.  Let me know if you agree that that they poignantly capture the duties and life of an ambulance driver.

By 2017, when Lester Johnson went to France, the corps had grown to six hundred American volunteers driving three hundred ambulances.  Below is a picture of Lester Johnson as he embarked on his way to France.  I’ll be writing more about Lester in the next few posts.

#1 Remembering World War I

The years 1914 to 1919 commemorate the centennial of World War I, known at the time as the Great War and called “The war to end all wars”. It had been raging in Europe for over 2½ years before the United States entered the war on April 6, 1917.
We’ll be marking the 100th anniversary of the United States involvement by highlighting how the first global war in history touched the lives of those who lived in Edwards County.
Many sacrifices were made both at home and by the local men who left as soldiers to fight in Europe.”
To begin with some historical context, the November 7, 1916 presidential election took place while Europe was engulfed in this war, Mexico was having a revolution, and women still could not vote.
The incumbent Democratic President Woodrow Wilson won the election over the Republican candidate, Supreme Court Justice Charles Evans Hughes. Like last November’s election, it was a hard-fought contest. Wilson defeated Hughes by nearly 600,000 votes in the popular vote and a narrow majority in the Electoral College where he won several swing states with razor-thin margins.
Although officially neutral in the European conflict, public opinion in the United States leaned towards the Allied forces headed by Great Britain and France against the German Empire and Austria-Hungary, due in large measure to the harsh treatment of civilians by the German Army in Belgium and northern France and the militaristic character of the German and Austrian monarchies.
In the February 2, 1917 issue of the Kinsley Mercury, the Kinsley Woman’s Club made an impassioned plea for people to give to the relief of the starving Belgium children.
“After two years beneath the upper and nether millstones of war, the Belgian people find themselves facing a new peril –the slow starvation of more than one million children.”
According to this article, it took $12 a year to supply an extra ration of food for a growing child and avoid starvation. The extra ration consisted of a biscuit with lard and a cup of cocoa.
“Think of it, you Americans who read this, you fathers and mothers of growing children! . . . Cannot we prosperous Kansans, who eat three bountiful meals a day, give liberally to those who are starving.”
But in spite of America’s sympathy with the plight of Europe and the Allied forces, most American voters, when they went to the polls in 1916, wanted to avoid involvement in the war. They preferred to continue a policy of neutrality. Wilson’s campaign slogans “He kept us out of war” and “America First” helped to reelect him.
From now until the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 2017, I want to continue to follow the local papers of 100 years ago in order to get a glimpse of the people in Edwards County and how they viewed and were affected by the war.

Yesterday a few brave people faced the bitter cold and 45 mph winds to come to the library to watch Part 2 of Ken Burns’ documentary on the Dust Bowl.  It covered the years after 1935 including the instigation of government programs which allowed some people to eat and stay on their farms.

It also began a discussion on future water concerns for the area and the Ogallala Aquifer.  If you have access to Kansas Kontact, (published by the Kansas Farmers Union, Winter 2015) or the Jan. 28 issue of the Edwards County Sentinel, you might be interested in an article written by Tom Parker.  It seems that one proposal to augment the aquifer has been put forth by the Kansas Aqueduct Coalition.   They “envision a lock and dam intake structure on the Missouri River near White Cloud pumping water to a nearby 13,000 acre source reservoir….Water would flow 360 miles in a zigzag route through a concrete lined canal 280′ wide and 23′ deep.  Fifteen pump stations would be necessary to lift the water about 1,600′ to a 25,000 acre terminal reservoir near Utica….”

Sounds expensive, perhaps impractical, and to my kayaking heart, tragic in the loss of a natural river.  Maybe this topic will come up in the April 12 discussion series meeting.  Wondering what your thoughts are?  Meanwhile, hope to see you this Sunday, Feb. 8, 2-5 at the library for a discussion on the Burns’ film and Caroline Henderson’s letters.

Yesterday the kindergarteners from USD 347 visited the exhibits.  They saw many images of Black Sunday and listened to three stories of people remembering April 14, 1935.  Children caught in a storm were taught to hold hands, follow a fence, make protection out of tumbleweeds, and wait for help.  One story tells of how a dog safely leads some teenage boys home when they could not see.  The children thought it would have been very scary being caught in Dust Storm.  They had an opportunity to look at the pictures in the exhibit and find ones that made them feel scared of sad.  They decided they would not have liked livingK1 during the Dust Bowl days and hoped it never happens again.

Library showing of documentary

Today the library showed Parts 1 & 2 of Ken Burn’s “Dust Bowl” documentary.  It is really amazing at how the people experienced and faced all of the adversities of the drought in the 1930’s  This documentary has lots of movie footage, still photos, and interviews of people who lived through it including Kansans from Morton County.  So next Sunday, Feb. 1, if you are looking for a way to avoid the hours of pregame Super Bowl coverage, join us for Parts 3 & 4.  It will be showing from 2-4 p.m., so you can still get home for kick off at 5:30.Jan25b 002

Ken Burns “Dust Bowl” to show January 25

You are invited to the Kinsley Library on Sunday, January 25, when we will be showing parts 1 & 2 of Ken Burns’ “Dust Bowl” from 2-4 p.m.  This PBS documentary chronicles the worst man-made ecological disaster in American history.  It is being shown in conjunction with the “Dust, Drought, and Dreams Gone Dry” exhibit now on display at the library.   There are vivid interviews with more than two dozen survivors of those hard times, along with with dramatic photographs and seldom seen movie footage.  If you haven’t seem this film, It will bring to life stories of incredible human suffering and equally incredible human perseverance.

“Dust, Drought, and Dreams Gone Dry” open house was a great success today. People came from as far away as Salina. Everyone enjoyed the exhibits, the homemade cookies (thank you Friends of the Kinsley Library) and Sand Hill Plum punch. Many people took advantage of the QR codes to listen to people remembering the Dust Bowl days. (Some used their cell phones and others used library tablets.)

Just a reminder that our first “It Blew So Hard” series meeting is tomorrow, Sunday, Jan. 11 from 2-5 p.m. (The library will open at 1 p.m. for those who want to take in the exhibit first.) Dr. Leo Oliva will be providing an introduction to the Dust Bowl Era and we’ll have a reenactment of a Dust Bowl farmer by Nolan Sump. Hope to sDDDopenHouseeditDDDopenHouseEdit2ee you tomorrow at the library.



Our 2015 discussion series, “It Blew So Hard: The Dust Bowl and Great Depression in Western Kansas” is all set for you to register.  The Kansas Humanities Council awarded the library $2,705.00 in support of the series which will again be led by Dr. Leo E. Oliva.  I am really excited about the series and all of the presenters, films, oral histories, and exhibits that will be involved.
Meetings are set from 2-5 pm on Sunday afternoons: January 11, February 8, March 8, and April 12.  It is free and open to the public.  People are asked to register for the series at the Kinsley Library website or by calling (620-659-3341) or coming to the library.
I’ll be telling you a little about the series in the next few days or you can get the whole schedule with session details and additional information about presenters and suggested readings.  Why not check it out and register today!