John Webb Johnson
Johnson is shown here in uniform. Note the helmet and arm band that indicate service as a front line medic
Backstory and Context
The Great War marked a large cultural shift in American views of military service. Service in the armed forces was no longer solely the domain of southern aristocrats from wealthy backgrounds. As calls went out for every citizen to do their part, military service became a means for Americans of diverse backgrounds to advance themselves in society. The contributions of African Americans, women, immigrants, and other marginalized groups to the war effort was critical in shifting societal views of these groups traditional roles, enabling later civil rights victories. Norfolk native John Webb Johnson expressed enthusiasm for his service in the army that was linked to this unifying view of military service. Johnson, an African American, served alongside white troops in France as a medic attached to Field evacuation hospital 4 neari Caigny. Johnson arrived at the front on July 18, 1918, and would see action in the Aisne-Marne, St. Michel, and Meuse-Argonne offensives leading up to the end of the war.
Johnson viewed his selection in the draft with the exuberance of “every patriotic citizen”. Johnson’s time in the medical corps enabled him to receive extensive training, and was a confidence building and self actualizing experience for the high school graduate. Johnson described training as having a great physical and mental impact on him, and attributed a “new value and a new pride in [his] physical strengths” to his overseas experience. Johnson’s war experience certainly had a positive impact, though he is also not shy about sharing the less glamorized impact of the traumas of war on him. Unlike most Norfolk veterans of the First World War, Johnson does not describe his religious belief as having been strengthened by his time overseas. Johnson declared the impact of his war experience on his religious views as “difficult to describe or analyze”, suggestive of personal difficulty in aligning the brutality of war with his Roman Catholic upbringing. Johnson’s enthusiasm for service was tempered by the brutality of the Western Front, reflecting how “...weeks of bitter struggle, not only with the enemy, but with the elements as well” had left him with “something he is crying to let slip from his grasp.”
This contrast in pre and post war attitudes that is evident in Johnson’s post war questionnaire would form the foundation of the philosophy of the Double V campaign that would emerge in the Second World War. The Double V campaign sought to win victory not only fascism and racism abroad, but also against the systemic racism and racially motivated violence African Americans faced at home. The Double V campaign argued that if Black Americans like John Webb Johnson were prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice for freedom abroad, they ought to be guaranteed it when they returned home. Despite the work he did saving the lives of American soldiers of every race and creed in France, Johnson would return to heavily segregated Norfolk after the war, and be unable to access the same public facilities as the white servicemen he served alongside. Unable to find employment in the still heavily segregated medical field, Johnson would work as an artist after the war. His home at 1676 Church Street still stands today.
Johnson, John Webb. Virginia War History Commission, Norfolk, Virginia. Sargeant Memorial Collection, Norfolk Public Library, Norfolk, Virginia.