The grave of a Sampson County teenager who died serving his country in World War I nearly a century ago, its location in the middle of an expansive field near Roseboro shrouded in mystery for years, will be moved to a place where it can be preserved for future generations.
Property owner Glen Fryar gave permission for the removal of Sampson native Walter Johnson’s grave from his property and entered into an agreement by which the county will be responsible for having it preserved at another location. The Sampson County Board of Commissioners, required to approve any grave removal in the county, did so earlier this week.
“Many veterans have expressed desire to have that grave relocated so it could be properly preserved and honored,” said county attorney Annette Starling. “With encouragement from (veterans service officer Ann) Knowles, Mr. Fryar has put forth this request. Currently, the grave is actually in a field that is being farmed by Mr. Fryar. So, this is for the benefit of Mr. Fryar and the veterans.”
Johnson died serving his country in France during World War I when he was just 17. A grave marker bearing his name rests in the middle of Fryar’s field off Ebenezer Forest Road, south of Roseboro. The headstone states that Johnson was born Oct. 3, 1901 and died in the service of his country in France, June 14, 1918.
“I want to give accolades to Mr. Fryar,” said Knowles. “From the time the grave came up, flowers and flags have been placed out there and it he has taken well care of it. He had to really think about (giving permission to have the grave removed), because he has cared for it.”
The headstone was discovered when the land was being tended years back. A tree was being bulldozed and the stump removed, when the grave was uncovered. It had been buried in the ground, and Knowles thinks the headstone was likely protected by the roots. Around Memorial Day last year, Norman Coe placed flags around the stone, and a news story brought attention to the grave and its odd placement in the center of a field.
“He was kind of surprised because it had been there,” Knowles said of Fryar. “He has taken care of it. It’s not on a main highway, but it’s not too far off the road. People in the community probably knew about it.”
Knowles said she has worked for the past six months going through the process of seeing the grave preserved. Proper permits have to be obtained and all health standards and protocol followed. The veterans service officer said Johnson’s memory could best be honored at the Sandhills State Veterans Cemetery in Spring Lake, where it can be assured his gravesite will be preserved for generations upon generations.
“He will always be there with other veterans, to be honored and cared for,” said Knowles.
Last year, one local woman set out to shed light on who Johnson was, scouring Census records from 1910 and 1920, war records, draft sheets, property deeds, death certificates and traced family histories on Ancestry.com. Her research took her to the State Archives Building in Raleigh for war records, as well as correspondence with the WWI Museum in Kansas City, Mo., the VA Office in Washington, D.C., and the French WWI Museum across the Atlantic.
It was discovered that Walter was the son of Ollin and Mattie Johnson. Along with Walter, the couple had three daughters, Margie (Marjah), Flora and Jessie. Another son, Willie Lee Johnson of Washington, D.C., who was not on record up to the 1920 Census, was listed as another of Mattie’s sons and the contact person upon her death in 1980. Her birth certificate states she died in 1984.
Some date discrepancies were similarly found with Johnson.
While nearly all Census records, as with his headstone, list Johnson’s age as 17 at his death, the roll call uncovered at the Archives Building in Raleigh shows his age as 21 at the time he was inducted, and 22 at his death. Nearly every soldier on the Clinton, Sampson County roll call that included Johnson was listed at least 21 years old — as with Johnson, that likely was not true.
According to Census records, the family lived in the McDaniels area south of Roseboro, where Ollin Johnson was a farmer. Old property records obtained at the Sampson County Register of Deeds show Ollin worked on a farm owned by Ida Rich, that was then deeded to Adolphus Williamson. Ollin Johnson was working for N.H. Larkins at the time of his death in 1922, according to his death certificate.
That 126-acre property is currently owned by Fryar and has served as the resting place for Johnson.
Johnson’s WWI card states he was inducted into the military in Clinton on March 30, 1918. It lists his cause of death as pneumonia, however it is possible that he was killed in action. That may never be known. The gravesite was advertised, but no relatives could be located.
What is known is that Johnson served his country — and veterans believe he should be honored alongside his fellow soldiers for his service. That is what prompted Knowles and various veterans to volunteer their time and efforts to relocate the grave to Sandhills State Veterans Cemetery. There, the grave will be reinterred and the headstone placed so visitors can honor the grave.
“We’re going to give him all the honor we can,” said Knowles. “We’re going to give him a full honors ceremony, because I know it couldn’t happen back in the day because he was a black boy.”
She hopes to have the Sampson County Veterans Council and a full Honor Guard there, as well as the playing of “Taps” to honor a fallen solider.
Knowles said it was a process that began with Fryar’s willingness to honor a veteran. For the grave to be removed, it must be requested by the property owner. On April 5, Fryar signed a memorandum of understanding with the Sampson County Veterans Office, stating that he “would like the grave to be removed from his property and relocated to a site where it can be preserved and visited.”
As part of the agreement, the owner agrees to allow veterans to enter his property within 75 days of the date of the agreement with necessary equipment to remove the grave. Veterans, in turn, agree to use their best efforts in returning the property close to its original state. Knowles said she hopes that process can begin later this month.
There are so many old graves that are unmarked, to find one by itself in the middle of a field that can be traced to a history that extends thousands of miles and an ocean away, was an intriguing find — one that Knowles and others want to see preserved for years to come.
“He was a Sampson County soldier, and he gave his life for his country,” said Knowles. “We’re going to honor his memory.”
Chris Berendt can be reached at 910-592-8137 ext. 121 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.