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Paul S. Johnson First World War correspondence

 Collection — Box: WWI 17, Folder: 5-7, Folder: 1-3
Identifier: 2022-200-w-r

Content Description

This collection contains approximately 50 letters from Ch (1st Lt.) Paul Sheldon Johnson, AEF (YMCA) to his family during the First World War. Also included are narrative articles written about Johnson's time overseas, a bound collection of photocopies of these materials with an introduction and a photocopy of a program for Johnson's installation as a pastor, as well as one original lunch menu from the ocean liner Chicago and one clipping about soldiers on leave in Paris.

The bound volume begins with a photocopied program for Johnson's installation as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Rapid City, South Dakota on May 14, 1919, which includes a photograph of Johnson. The volume, created by the donor, the granddaughter of Paul and Franc, includes an introduction with biographical information, some quotes, and photocopies of each letter and narrative contained within the collection.

The letters were written to Paul's mother, father, and sister Marian while serving overseas in France with the YMCA from October 1917 to November 1918. The majority of the letters were addressed to his mother "Muz" with some to his father and others to his "People," a colloquial designation for the rest of the family who were to receive letters after they were read by one or more family members. Some letters were signed "Plinkey" or "Mlinkey."

The menu is a lunch menu for Tuesday October 16, 1917. It is half-written in French from the Paquebot Chicago (ocean liner Chicago) and is folded with outer pictures of French soldiers and downed German machine guns.

In a letter dated October 29, 1917, Johnson observed the different conditions French civilians and soldiers faced compared to some of the daily comforts he enjoyed at the time of writing and noted that he would "not be on the job until Nov. 1 [1917], actively."

Johnson also discussed AEF activities and stated:

"The American Boys went into the first line trench yesterday and we are all rejoicing. Not because four were killed the first day and more than that shall be killed on every succeeding day but because we are getting our hand in it, and the sooner we get out hand in the sooner this horrible thing will be over with, and poor, noble, glorious, little France can go back to work again."

Johnson described the bustling streets of Paris, noting that they were in great use by soldiers. He wrote that "I have seen here soldiers from India, Morocco. Italy, Belgium, England, Russia, Canada, New [Zealand], Australia, and U.S.A and I supposed that I have seen others whom I have not recognized."

Johnson closed the letter by expressing happiness and eagerness "to get a job which has always been my idea of what true Christianity really is, 'Service.'"

In a letter dated December 5, 1917, Johnson wrote to his mother about the satisfaction of serving his "adopted boys." He also wrote that "On Thanksgiving a German plane, disguised as a French plane and taking pictures of the American positions was brought down about twenty miles away." He also described a scene he lived through during the evening of December 4, 1917 in which "the Germans bombarded a place not far from us. We had to extinguish or hide all lights. The firing and the signaling from one machine to another could be seen through[out] the night."

Johnson wrote to his mother in a letter dated April 1, 1918 to explain why mail would likely be delayed as the result of a "big battle . . . Calling for every available bit of transportation, attention, and effort." He also wrote about the "sinking of the Tuscania", adding that "I know the that Wisconsin troops were on it and that Polly was about due to come over. But, his outfit did not come on that boat and he is here safe."

Johnson then wrote about his visit to a local cathedral during Easter Sunday. Upon entering the cathedral he described "a great organ" that played while people prayed as "colored lights from the windows . . . mixed in with the shadows of the great pillars." He took notice of the cathedral's "representations and figures" and described them as "materialistic and grotesque." Johnson then found a "corner by [himself] [and] got down on one of their little praying benches and there in the shadows with the music of the organ echoing through the arches and against the high vaulted roof I communed with my God and Christ."

In a letter dated May 5, 1918, Johnson wrote to his father about a two week stay in his area by the "Hearon Sister's Concert Company" who sung, played, read, and "put on clever little stunts and really get away in big shape. It is doing the fellows heaps of good to have them about." He went on to offer the following commentary about women serving in France: "This is the first war in the history of the world as far as I have any knowledge where an organized effort was, and is being made to have good women follow the men to the battle field. Most of them are good sports and they go up just as far as regulation [would] permit."

In the letter dated June 11, 1918, Johnson mentions new censor rules allowing him to share his location, which was Neufchateu, Vosges, France. He goes on to discuss the war situation:

“Well I am glad that my postals came through finally. I hope you can keep them without too great inconvenience. They are especially valuable to me now as the Third Offensive of the Germans this spring was right over much of that ground. Where I spent February and March is now all in German hands. I follow the reports with especial interest for I have a mental picture of so much that is being fought over just now.”

The final correspondence in this collection is dated November 9, 1918.

There are four narrative articles which contain introductions by an unknown author and it is unknown when they were written, but they are mostly comprised of quotes from Johnson in the first person. The fourth narrative is a typed and edited version of the first article, typed on the back of a Presbytery agenda from April 12-13, 1917.


  • Creation: 1917 April 12 - 2008 December 17
  • Creation: Majority of material found within 1917 October 15 - 1918 November 9

Conditions Governing Access

This collection is open for research.

Conditions Governing Use

There are no restrictions on the use of this material except where previously copyrighted material is concerned. It is the responsibility of the researcher to obtain all permissions.

Biographical / Historical

Chaplain (First Lieutenant) Paul Sheldon Johnson, American Expeditionary Force (YMCA) (7/15/1891 - 1/30/1980) was born in Na-Au-Say, Kendall County, Illinois to Anna Mary French and Reverend Oliver C. "O.C." Johnson, a Presbyterian pastor in Hot Springs, South Dakota. According to the donor, O.C. Johnson suffered from clinical depression that left him unable to pastor his church at times, some of which was discussed in Mrs. Johnson's book, The Making of A Minsters Wife (D. Appleton-Century Company, Inc. publishers, copyright 1933 by the Christian Herald Association, Inc.).

Paul graduated from Carroll College in Waukesha, Wisconsin in 1913 and served in the US Army as a chaplain at the age of 26. His service took him overseas to France where he did "canteen work," operating the military bases for the Young Mens Christian Association (YMCA). The YMCA traces its war work to the Civil War, with support from Abraham Lincoln, and overseas work initially during the Spanish-American War. Their function during the First World War, and that of Paul Johnson's, was to conduct welfare services, especially from a religious Christian standpoint. Paul participated in this morale and welfare work with the YMCA until near the end of the war.

On August 19, 1917 Paul met Franc Irene Dunning (3/7/1894 - 1/31/1979) and began a 6-week courtship before he shipped overseas, disclosing this courtship to his mother a year later in the 1918 letter of that date. He received military leave to marry Franc and wrote his last letter on November 9. The armistice was signed on the 11th, they were married on the 14th, and Paul never redeployed. The two had a girl and a boy; Marian French Johnson (5/23/1922 - 11/13/1998) after his sister and Paul S. Johnson, Jr. (5/15/1924 - 4/27/2005).

Paul earned his first church appointment as pastor of the First Presbyterian Church in Rapid City, South Dakota, charged by his father, on May 14, 1919. He continued to serve as pastor for several congregations and earned an honorary Doctor of Divinity from his alma mater Carroll College in 1928, as well as a degree from McCormick Theological Seminary (Presbyterian) in Chicago where he later became director. He moved back to Oak Park, Illinois in 1938 and became the Executive Secretary of the Presbytery of Chicago in October, a position he held until he retired.

After retirement, Paul and Franc moved to Pasadena, California to a retirement home run by the Presbyterian church, mostly former pastors. Franc passed away in 1979 at the age of 84 and Paul almost exactly one year later at the age of 88.


0.1 Linear Feet (3 folders)

Language of Materials




This collection contains approximately 50 letters from Ch (1st Lt.) Paul Sheldon Johnson, AEF (YMCA) to his family during the First World War. Also included are narratives, a bound collection of photocopies, and one lunch menu.


This collection is arranged by material type and chronology.

Immediate Source of Acquisition

Gift of Marian Johnson Wagner Cones.

Finding Aid for the Paul S. Johnson First World War correspondence
Andrew Harman
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description

Repository Details

Part of the Center for American War Letters Archives, Frank Mt. Pleasant Library of Special Collections and Archives Repository

Leatherby Libraries
Chapman University
Orange CA 92866 United States