Guide to the Charles Johnson Family Papers, 1924-1947

Collection number: MC 338
Size: (6 boxes) (2.5 cu.ft.)

About Charles Johnson and the Johnson Family

Charles C. Johnson (August 16 1907 Newbury NH – 3 July 1999 Greensboro SC) was a member of the UNH Class of 1936 and was active in the Theta Chi fraternity and the ROTC. He served as a photographer in the 37th Airborne Reconnaissance Squadron in Italy from 1943-1945.

Johnson was the son of Ralph Webster Johnson (1876-bef. 1976) of Newport and Manchester NH and Isabelle Harris Paul (?-bef. 1920). His father and stepmother Alice L. Lane (1888-1945) appear frequently in the family letters. His siblings were Ralph N. Johnson of Walpole NH (went by Jack, married to Eloise “Weesie” Chiswell, children Ann, Thomas, and James); Josephine Hope Johnson of Pittsburgh PA (went by Hope, married George H. Miller, no children); Paulina C. Johnson of Camden ME/Detroit MI (went by Polly, married Edward Davis, several children including a son Milton); James Webster Johnson (“Jim”, unmarried and serving in the 297th Army Infantry & 24th Airboare Squadron ca. 1943-1945); and Jocelyn F. Johnson of Portland ME (went by Joce, not yet married by 1945).

Charles “Charlie” Johnson moved to New York City after completing his time at UNH, and began work as a graphic artist, engraver, and photographer. In NYC he met Ruth Pettigrew (1908-?) of Tampa Florida, and they were married 15 August 1931. They do not appear to have had children, although pre-war family letters often allude to Ruth’s ‘illnesses’ (i.e. probably miscarriages). Ruth worked as a nurse in a hospital in New York.

Charles' Military Service

Charles was drafted in mid-September 1943, completing basic training at Keesler Field in Mississippi. From there he was transferred to flight training at the Will Rogers Field in Oklahoma City OK, and then briefly to Lowery Airfield outside Denver Colorado in December of 1943. From there he and the rest of his squadron went to a base outside San Severo Italy, where they stayed until he returned home in August of 1945. Charles’s background in photography earned him a job photographing from planes by day and developing film late into the night. He also found time to photograph the street life and Italian countryside around the base. Charles and Ruth wrote extensive letters to each other several times a week for the duration of his deployment.

Hope and George's Internments

Charles’s sister Hope’s unusual story as a prisoner of war under the Japanese is told mostly through the letters of her family. Before the war she moved to Alaska, and there met mining engineer George H. Miller. The couple married and moved to Manila, Philippines. At the beginning of the war George enlisted in the Marines, but was later captured by the Japanese and interned at the Cabanatuan POW Camp. Hope was caught up in the Japanese capture of Manila and interned at the Santo Thomas POW Camp in Manila from January 2 1942 through February 2 1945 when the camp was liberated by the American military. During her imprisonment in the camp she worked as a schoolteacher. During George and Hope’s internments, their families received fewer than five letters from Hope via the Red Cross and no news at all from George. Only upon her release in 1945 did she and the family learn of George’s death in 1942, probably during the Bataan Death March.

About the Charles Johnson Family Letters

This small collection consists of five boxes of family letters and one box of Charles's photographs. The family correspondence consists of two boxes of letters between Charles and Ruth (Boxes 1 & 2), one box of letters from other members of the family to them (Box 3), a box of material from friends and the US Army, photographs documenting Charles and Ruth's love of fishing, the American occupation of Italy, and the training and deployment to Italy of the 37th Airborne (Box 5). Lastly Box 6 contains several stories and a novel written by Charles.

Topics covered in detail include family health, politics, the progress of the war, travel, fishing, family finances, and the activities of the three siblings (Charles, Jim, and Hope) caught up in the Second World War. The story of Hope and George's internment is scattered throughout, but is most prominant in the family letters from ca. 1945 and the occasional letters she was able to send via the Red Cross prior to that. The 1945 letters, finally freed from Japanese censorship, provide a vivid account of life in Cabanatuan and Hope's bittersweet joy upon her liberation.

Administrative Information

Access Restrictions

This collection is open.

This collection should be handled with care by those with mold sensitivities, due to past mold concerns in several of the letters.

Copyright Notice

Contents of this collection are governed by U.S. copyright law. For questions about publication or reproduction rights, contact Special Collections staff.

Preferred Citation

[Identification of item], [Folder Number], [Box Number], Charles Johnson Family Papers, 1924-1947, MC 338, Milne Special Collections and Archives, University of New Hampshire Library, Durham, NH, USA.

Acquisitions Information

Gift of Dr. Christian Streck, 2018

Separated Material

The physical condition of the collection was substantially deteriorated by water, mold, and pests prior to acquisition. Because of this ca. 40% of the collection was removed and discarded as it represented an extensive preservation threat. Most envelopes were separated, their information copied to the letters, and then discarded. Physically unstable letters were photocopied and the originals discarded (the copies often reflect the extensive staining and missing parts of the originals). A single letter from Ruth to Charles dated 4/3/1945 was too disintegrated to discern and was discarded without copying; the rest were rescued. The photographic negatives (nitrate 'Safety' film) were separated and discarded due to degradation and fire hazard. The yellowing newspaper clippings and telegrams were photocopied and the originals discarded.

Collection Arrangement

The collection is organized by letter recipient and then chronologically by year within that. The photographs, all of which were unlabeled, are roughly organized into several subject areas represented in the letters. An original order was not discernable upon receipt of the collecion.

Collection Contents

Box 1
Correspondence from Charles to Ruth, 1933-1945

This box contains 9 folders organized by year, and by month during the years of 1944-1945. Charles and Ruth's letters discuss Charles' training and deployment, her work in a hospital, military service, their relationship, family matters, photography and current events. Many letters bear censorship stamps and parts of them were removed by the military censors.

Box 2
Correspondence from Ruth to Charles, 1933-1945 and undated

Eight folders organized by year (except, again, for 1944-1945, where they are sorted by month), and one slim folder of undated material in the back. Topics are as listed in Box 1.

Box 3
Letters to and from the Johnson Family, 1924-1945 and undated

Eight folders of correspondence to Ruth and Charles from the Johnson siblings, their father and stepmother, and the various nieces and nephews. One final folder contains letters written by Charles home to his family. Often letters were retyped by one sibling and mailed to the others or a single letter from someone overseas was passed around the family. The result is a remarkably complete record of the life of a single New England family during the Depression and WWII. Recurrent topics include their father and stepmother's health, finanical support, and the fate of the three siblings stationed/interned overseas.

Box 4
Letters from Friends/Professional Correspondence, 1931-1947

This box contains letters sent to Charles and Ruth by their various friends, sorted by year. There are three folders of Charles' professional correspondence and military papers, dated 1930-1947. A final folder contains song books from Keesler Field, Lowry Air Force Base, and several other army-issue booklets describing first aid, survival, and conduct.

Box 5
Charles' Photos, Undated

Nine folders of mostly unlabeled photographs, starting with one folder containing photos of Charles Johnson and Ruth Johnson. One folder covers family, friends, and college, three cover fishing and the outdoors, one depicts architecture and abstract photography, and three depict American soldiers during Charles' training and later during his deployment in San Severo, Italy. The last folder is one of three depicting civilian street scenes, landscapes, and people under the American occupation of that area of Italy.

Box 6
Photographs and Writings, Undated

Two final folders of photographs complete Charles' photographs of civilian life in Italy, while the remaining three contain various pre-war short stories and a novelabout fishing.

Collection

Formats

Genealogical Papers
Letters & Postcards
Manuscripts & Typescripts