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Small-town boy experienced his share of real-life drama

Kim Johnson contributed this 1980s photo of her grandfather, Roy Stonewall Johnson. Roy grew up near Fabius in rural Marion County, Mo.


“Dear Mom …”

The year was 1928. The shocking news of the sinking of the British passenger vessel “Vestris” off of Hampton Roads, Va., was still fresh in the minds of Americans, who had read about the tragedy in newspapers across this country as well as around the world.

Some 125 lives were lost when the ship sank into the darkness, spilling its ill-prepared passengers into the cold Atlantic waters.

A rescue boat – the United States battle ship Wyoming – was among the first vessels to respond to the emergency, and arrived on the scene before the first light of day.

Roy Stonewall Johnson – a son of Palmyra, Mo., - was aboard the Wyoming as crewmembers used searchlights to locate any survivors.

But none could be seen until the sun began its ascent.

Johnson wrote to his mother, Mrs. Jane Sharp Terry of Quincy, Ill., regarding that fateful night. The Palmyra Spectator printed a portion of Johnson’s letter to his mother:

“We arrived where the Vestris had sunk about 2 o’clock this morning and trained searchlights, but we did not discover anybody until daylight. We have rescued so far eight, five women and three Negroes. The first man we rescued this morning was a Negro, hanging on a raft. It was a dreadful sight.”

Vice Admiral M.M. Taylor, who was aboard the battleship Wyoming, released the names of the survivors to the Boston Globe for its Nov. 13, 1928 edition: Mrs. Fernand, Mrs. Inouye, Mrs. Barrier, Mrs. Patten and Mrs. Oelrich, passengers, and John Morris, Gerald Burton and Joseph Boxill, Negro members of the crew.


Appendicitis was a major health concern in 1916, when 14-year-old Roy Stonewall Johnson, living near Fabius, in Marion County, Mo., became ill and needed an operation.

* In late February 1916, Frank Girard of Philadelphia, Mo., died a day after he was operated on for appendicitis. He was 38.

* In May 1916, Noble Bonta, son of Robert Bonta, who lived between Emerson and Benbow in Marion County, died of appendicitis.

* And also in May 1916, 25-year-old Oliver Bergdorfer of Palmyra died a week after surgery for appendicitis.

When Roy Johnson fell ill in March 1916, his family arranged to take him to Quincy, Ill., where he was operated on by Dr. Frank T. Brenner, senior surgeon, at St. Mary’s Hospital.

Young Roy survived the operation and lived to a ripe old age.

Step father dies

Just two weeks before his attack with appendicitis, Roy Johnson’s step father, Laban Sharp, died of pneumonia. Once Mr. Sharp’s estate was settled a year later, Roy, his mother, sister and toddler step-brother were forced to relocate from an 80-acre farm in the Sudduth school district, to a 40 acre farm in the Oakview school district.

Young Roy took charge of the move, left school for a time, relocating his mother’s possessions and farming equipment, cows and livestock. His transport vehicle was a wagon and a team of old horses.

Years later he wrote in his journal:

“I looked into our transferred mailbox at the road entrance to the house, and nothing – but the Quincy daily paper - was in the box, with a big printed headline on the front page of the paper saying: Congress has declared war on Germany, April 6, 1917.”

He decided he was best able to serve his family by staying in school.

“It dawned upon me to try to finish rural school’s 8th grade and try to get an education. So I entered Oakview school in the 7th grade in 1917 – and the 8th grade in 1918-1919. Most of which was during World War I, which ended in the armistice in November of 1918.”

After the war’s end, Roy Johnson enlisted, serving in the Army and Navy, and although he had hoped to make it a career, he was able to serve just 11 years. As previously mentioned, he was stationed aboard the Battleship Wyoming.

Rural education

Sometime before his death in 1986, Roy Johnson put pen to paper to recount his days of rural Marion County education.

He enrolled in Sudduth school at the age of 8, in 1910, and his textbook was the Elson Grammar School reader. “I was very slow in learning to spell and read,” he wrote in his journal.

In September 1910, he recalled that the rural superintendent of schools for Marion County’s public schools, Mr. Tom Bashore – visited the school. He brought with him a click camera that stood upon three wooden legs. The classroom teacher was Miss Oneta Johnson, who helped Mr. Bashore line the students up between two hickory trees that stood on the east side near the entrance to the school. The tallest students stood up, he recalled, and smaller children sat down.

Roy held a slate marked “Sudduth School” and sat between Helen Cook and Bertha Lee Carter.

“On the right side of Helen Cook was sitting Johnny Wiley holding the other slate with chalk prints on it that gave the date Sept. 21st 1910. And on the right side of Johnny Wiley sat my sister, Nora May Johnson. To the right of my sister sat Cecil Johnson, youngest brother of Miss Oneta. And on right side of Cecil Johnson was Leona Musick, daughter of Wilbur Musick and on the ending of the front line to the left was Clarence Cave, grandson of Abraham G. Cave of the district.”

Mr. Bashore’s visit left a lasting impression on young Roy.

“I remember when the class took up at 1 p.m. Mr. Bashore acted as teacher. The lesson had a larger word than we ever had encountered, the word - beau – ti –ful - and Mr. Bashore had us spell it by its syllables.”

After that visit, Roy’s reading took off, and he in turn mastered the third reader by the end of his first school term.

Roy recalled his rural school teachers:

Oneta Johnson, Sept. 1910 to May 1911

Ethyl Chilton Sept. 1911 to May 1912

Ethyl Chilton Sept. 1912 to May 1913

Grace Lillard Sept. 1913 to May 1914

Ethyl Chilton Sept. 1914 to May 1915

Ena Clark Sept 1915 to May 1916

Lady C. Hansbrough Sept. 1916 to May 1917

Third cousin to Stonewall Jackson

In 1940, Roy Stonewall Johnson announced that he had written a manuscript, “Different Relations,” and it was to be published by Fortuny’s Publishing Co., of New York City.

The Marion County Standard of Jan. 24, 1940, wrote of a letter received from Mr. Johnson, who was making his home at the time in Mountain Home, Tenn.

(His grandmother, Margaret Neale, was the sister to Stonewall Jackson's mother, according to Mike Beaston, Roy Johnson’s nephew.)

The 1940 news release from the publishing company described Johnson and his manuscript:

“Roy Stonewall Johnson, namesake and relative of the great general (Stonewall Jackson) has done a truly remarkable piece of research upon the family history of himself and his distinguished third cousin. Traveling about the United States and examining all the archives pertinent to his purpose, the young author has based all his statements on the most valid authorities in existence.”

His story lives on

Thanks to the mementoes Roy Johnson left behind, memories of this son of Marion County linger long after his death.

His mother died in 1949, and he died in 1986. They are buried at Greenwood Cemetery, Palmyra.

His surviving sister died at Quincy, Ill., in 2001.

Note: Thanks to Kim Johnson and Mike Beaston for sharing family photos and memorabilia.

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