Since January, 10th-grader Joey Chong and his former middle school history teacher, Lou Ann Rives, have been working together like a team of detectives uncovering the life of a man who’s buried in French soil and who was only 28 when he died.
His name’s James D. Johnston, born in 1915 in Lincolnton but raised in Barium Springs in Iredell County where his father, Joseph, was superintendent of the local orphanage.
On June 29, 1944, 19 days after landing at Utah Beach during the invasion of Normandy, France, Lt. Col. Johnston, a battalion leader in the Army’s 47th Infantry Regiment, 9th Infantry Division, stepped out of a house his men had captured near Cherbourg, France, and was hit by piece of flak from a German 88 mm gun.
He died from wounds at a Cherbourg hospital. He’s buried with nearly 9,400 other U.S. troops at the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer. The cemetery overlooks the beaches where on June 6, 1944, and the months that followed, thousands of Allied troops stormed into France to liberate Europe from the grip of Nazi Germany in one of World War II’s – and history’s – most pivotal events.
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On this Memorial Day, Chong, a student at Providence High, and Rives, a history/social studies teacher at Jay M. Robinson Middle School, are preparing to travel to Normandy in June as one of 15 student-teacher teams from across the nation chosen by the Albert H. Small Student & Teacher Institute to study one of the troops buried at the cemetery.
There, Chong will eulogize Johnston – a man he feels he knows more each day because of their digging through military files, division websites and other resources.
“I think it will truly be an emotional experience to be at his grave,” said Chong, the son of Korean immigrants. “His presence will definitely be there, and I hope I can begin to do him the justice of letting his story be told – so others like him won’t be forgotten.”
‘Want to go to France?’
The program is coordinated by the National History Day organization based at the University of Maryland, and funded by Small, an effort to teach young people about the sacrifices and hardships faced by millions of Americans during World War II.
Chong had participated in other NHD contests and last August read about The Normandy Sacrifice for Freedom project through Small’s institute.
He called Rives.
“I was working in the garden, and Joey calls all excited and he says, ‘Ms. Rives, there’s this sort of contest for a student and teacher and you research a soldier in D-Day and we’d get to go France. You want to go to France, Ms. Rives?” Rives recalled.
They got together for months, submitting applications and letters about why Chong should be chosen. In late December, they got word that they were one of 15 teams.
Their study began in January. It came with a curriculum from National History Day, with students and teachers given reading assignments each week.
One assignment deals with segregation in the military during the war. Rives said she’ll use pieces of the reading in her classes.
“We can use an article like that to bridge the period between World War II and the civil rights period of the 1960s,” Rives said. “We’re looking at the big picture of Normandy and the bigger picture of the war and how it affected the country.”
The two went to the cemetery’s website and found that 200 troops from North Carolina are buried there.
They chose Johnston primarily because he was from the Charlotte region.
They thought they’d have a better chance finding family in Lincolnton. So far, they haven’t. What they know is that the Johnston family moved to Barium Springs at some point between 1920 and 1930.
Chong said Johnston graduated from Davidson College and joined the Army at Fort Bragg in 1940, before America was pulled into the war after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
‘Voice for the voiceless’
He trained in North Carolina, and by February 1943 he was in the thick of combat in Tunisia in North Africa. From there, the 9th Infantry Division was sent into the battle to wrestle away the island of Sicily, Italy, from the Axis powers during the summer of 1943.
Johnston had seen considerable combat by the time the division was shipped to England to train for the Normandy invasion.
The 9th landed at Utah Beach on June 10, 1944, four days after D-Day. The 47th regiment’s objective was to cut off the Cotentin Peninsula to the west and liberate Cherbourg, Chong and Rives said.
On the 29th, Johnston’s battalion had set up operations in a house on the outskirts, when Johnston walked outside. The flak hit him in the abdomen, Chong said.
He was still alive when they got him to a hospital.
That’s where his story stops, until 1947. Through Army records, Chong discovered that Johnston’s name had been spelled “Johnson” on his marker at Normandy. That was fixed.
The family also received a letter that the military was considering digging up Johnston’s coffin to send back to North Carolina – satisfying a request that officials thought his family had made.
“But the Army had been misinformed,” Chong said. “They wrote back that they didn’t want to disturb the body and wanted to leave him there – and let him be at peace.”
Next month, they’ll go to that grave and speak for Johnston.
“The stories of those fallen soldiers typically go untold, and we have to be the voice for the voiceless,” Chong said. “It’s unjust for those stories to stay hidden and go untold forever. Throughout this experience, it feels like I was able to get to know him as if he was there throughout the entire research process.”
Know anything about James Johnston?
If you have any information about James D. Johnston or his family contact Lou Ann Rives at firstname.lastname@example.org.