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Your Silent Neighbors: Albert E. Johnson, WWI Hero

June 1, 2017 Community, History No Comments

By David K. Leff 
Canton Town Historian 

Albert E. Johnson (1892-1918) was wounded in action on April 20, 1918, climbing out of a trench and “going over the top,” as one newspaper put it, at the battle of Seicheprey, a small village in northeastern France. He died in a Red Cross hospital on May 8 at age 25.  It was a brutal battle involving inexperienced American troops surprised by seasoned Germans.  It is said that by the time the fighting was over the next day, not a single building or tree in Seicheprey was left intact.  Although the Americans had held their ground, it was at great cost.

Johnson was born in Collinsville on August 7, 1892 and graduated with honors from Collinsville High School in 1911 where he was salutatorian of his class. He got a degree from Yale in 1914.  After college, he worked as an engineer for the Connecticut Company, the principal trolley operator in the state. He began his military service in 1916 with the New Haven Grays, a guard unit, and was assigned for a time to the Mexican border. He was discharged from the guard and joined the federal service to accept a commission as a first lieutenant on August 5, 1917.

Among the American Expeditionary Forces sent by troopship to France, Johnson arrived “over there” in the latter half of the year. A man of intelligence and discretion, one of his jobs was working in the office censoring mail. In December, he received a Christmas box from the town.  Inside was mail, tobacco, sweets and socks, “things which make a fellow feel happy in this country,” Johnson said in a letter.  “I don’t remember any time when a Christmas gift brought me as much cheer as this one,” he wrote. Ever optimistic, Johnson hoped “our next Christmas will be spent either in Berlin on parade, or in Collinsville at home.”

After Lieutenant Johnson’s death, flags flew at half mast in Collinsville for a week. The Farmington Valley Herald called him “the peer in ability of any young man who has gone out of Collinsville and he had the respect and esteem of all.” Johnson was originally buried in France, but on June 15, 1921 his body was brought home to be reinterred in the Village Cemetery. For two days he lay in state at the Swedish Church on Center Street with an honor guard from the Legion Post that bears his name.

On June 17, an impressive funeral service was held. It was led by the pastors of the Collinsville Congregational Church and Trinity Church. A funeral cortege that included the Collins Company band took the flag-draped coffin from the Swedish Church to the Village Cemetery for burial.  Fifty American Legion members were in line, most in uniform, along with many citizens. “Most impressive of all” wrote the Farmington Valley Heraldwere “the school children of the village in two lines one on each side of the road and filling all space between the church and the cemetery. The children stood at attention and there was not a sign of anything but the utmost respect observed in their ranks as the body passed through.”  As Johnson was laid to rest, three rifle volleys were fired over the grave by eight riflemen.  Afterward, taps was sounded.

The American Legion Albert Johnson Post No. 90 was granted a provisional charter in 1920 and a full charter shortly thereafter.  It was incorporated in 1931.  In the early days, the Post was headquartered in the small building on Market Street across from Canton Town Hall.  The building was then owned by The Collins Company and was used rent free.  The Post for many years orchestrated Canton’s Memorial Day ceremony.

Shortly after his death, Johnson’s minister at the Swedish Church, Axel Fredenhom, penned a poem about the young soldier and concluded with this couplet:

And over and over our heroes will give
Their lives for their love that the nation may live.

Albert E. Johnson is buried in the Village Cemetery, Collinsville.

“Your Silent Neighbors” introduces readers to people out of Canton’s past.  It will appear on the first and fifteenth of each month.  Readers are encouraged to visit these gravesites and pay their respects to the people who have helped make our community what it is today.  Any suggestions, questions, or corrections should be addressed to Town Historian David Leff at onktaadn@comcast.net


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