Born in the Pee Dee town of Marion, South Carolina, in 1878, John Monroe Johnson (1878-1964) was a son of John Monroe and Emma Crider Johnson. Young Johnson left in 1895 to attend the University of South Carolina and remained there until he enrolled at Furman University in 1896. Johnson left Furman in 1897, and the following year he served as acting Color Sergeant in the Heavy Battery, South Carolina Volunteer Artillery, in the Spanish-American War. On 15 November 1900 Johnson married Helen Barnwell. The couple settled in Marion where Johnson practiced as a civil engineer in the firm of Johnson & Roberts. The bulk of the correspondence in this collection of five linear feet consists of Johnson’s letters to Helen while serving with the 117th Engineer Regiment in the Rainbow (42nd) Division.
Prior to his service in World War I, Johnson’s only military experience occurred over the six months that he served in the Spanish-American War. Johnson was appointed a Major in the First Battalion of the 117th Engineer Regiment before the unit’s departure from South Carolina. The unit arrived in France in November 1917 and on 8 December Johnson thanked his wife for a Thanksgiving box: "I tell you it did not last long we tore into it in great shape." He advised her not to pay attention to what she read in the press: "they publish the thing to make the public feel patriotic." This was a theme which he often addressed, as in a letter of 27 March 1918, in which he commented: "Lot of stuff in the papers about offensive and guns the Germans have that shoot 75 miles, are bull. There is an offensive and a serious one, but it will be managed." And again in a letter of 27 April he remarked on news coverage in the press: "You ought to hear us laugh at the American papers in what they publish about Rainbow etc etc. Biggest bunch of fudge you ever read....more men are casualties by health than by wounds from the enemy." Two days later Johnson was promoted to lieutenant colonel.
During the winter months of 1918, the 117th served with French troops and was involved in the construction of shelters, the erection of barbed wire, and the excavation of trenches. While Johnson’s letters could not inform his wife about his location or military operations, he could always comment on the mundane events of a soldier’s life. When writing Helen on 22 April, he noted that he had just stepped out of "a good hot shower…and feel much more civilized, also I shave every morning, think of that." Shaving was facilitated by "a funny little alcohol stove" he inherited from the chaplain (27 April). It was not suitable for making coffee "but heats my shaving water." A fox terrier was assigned to the unit to perform duty as "the official rat killer….But he does not know anything at all about a rat, and refuses to have anything to do with rats whatever" (8 May). Johnson was scheduled to deliver two speeches on Memorial Day. He found humor in "a man from South Carolina making a speech on Yankee memorial day; and two at that" (29 May).
By July 1918 the 117th Engineer Regiment relocated to the Champagne front and became more actively involved in combat as a German offensive was launched in this sector in July. In a letter of July 13 he tells of an adventure over territory "once held by the Bosch." One week later (20 July), he recounts a recent battle in which his unit participated: "It is a wonderful sight to look over a real battle field and this was a real one & the Bosch got one in the nose and has a lot more coming to him from day to day." "The American soldier," Johnson remarked, "is the best in the lot without a doubt." Commenting again on the performance of American soldiers (15 August), Johnson informed his wife: "I had the privilege of seeing some work by American soldiers as courageous as that performed by any soldiers the world has ever produced."
The following month, Johnson sensed that "this war is coming to a close according to schedule & we will see each other before for ever" (6 September). Johnson was promoted to colonel and chief engineer of the 42nd Division in October and anticipated a fight "that I commanded the Regt. from the first" (3 October). By the end of the month he speculated that the fighting would end soon: "things are moving fast towards the end, and I do not see how it can go much further" (31 October). The cessation of fighting came eleven days later which prompted Johnson to speculate on when they might depart for home. The following day they were to move out of France where they had spent "1 year & 21 days" and "were out of the battle scored country for the first time since Feb. & it looks funny to see towns intact & children & citizens all around." Johnson considered the United States "the luckiest country…that ever did anything & will hereafter be listened to even more than heretofore in world politics & no one will itch to go to war with her" (21 November). Responding to a letter from his wife, Johnson observed that the Seabrooks were Republicans which explained their condemnation of President Wilson. He thought it advisable to "[k]eep out of these discussions & when people say all that fiery stuff you can bet your life they are out of range of the biggest gun. We wanted unconditional surrender & we got it" (14 December).
Although plans for returning home were uncertain by the first of the year, Johnson was giving thought to what model of car he might acquire: "I understand that Cadillac is about $3,000, cant stand that and if steamer does not suit me it will be another Cadillac of course" (22 January 1919). Along with making preparations to stand down, Johnson was pleased that a night school was being offered: "Many of the men are learning to read and to write & many in elementary arithmetic." He was not happy that he had to participate in "another fool terrain exercise....Do not know why they insist on this fool stuff. Takes every officer & lots of men…& they go back disgusted" (30 January 1919). Shortly before departure, Johnson informed his wife of an unfortunate incident that involved some soldiers who "went out wine hunting & it seems they had trouble locating wine so rapped a dutchman on the head with a stick to such an extent that he died." Johnson criticized the policy of allowing soldiers "to buy or drink the damned stuff" and remarked: "The record of the Am soldier would have been much better had it not been allowed" (9 April 1919).
In addition to letters to his wife, the collection includes World War I maps, a roster of the 117th Engineer Regiment, several issues of the Rainbow Reveille, and a photograph album of the 117th.
Johnson returned to his civil engineering practice in Marion in 1919. He also participated actively in the American Legion and reunions of the Rainbow Division. In 1927 the American Legion returned to France. Among the mementoes of that gathering are a luncheon program hosted by Field Marshal Earl Haig and the Councils of the British Empire Service League and the text of the address delivered by French Prime Minister Poincare at the banquet given by the French Government to the American Legion. Colonel Johnson was a strong advocate for veterans, and the collection contains letters of appreciation from a number who served in the Rainbow Division. Among the decorations bestowed on Johnson were the Legion of Honor of France and the Order of Leopold II of Belgium.
Monroe Johnson remained in South Carolina until 1935 when he was appointed Assistant Secretary of Commerce under fellow South Carolinian Daniel C. Roper. Thus began a period of twenty-one years of service in various positions in the Federal government. In June 1940 he filled a vacancy on the Interstate Commerce Commission and was reappointed in 1942 and 1949. Beginning in April 1944 he received a concurrent appointment as Director of the Office of Defense Transportation and remained in that post until the office was terminated in 1949. He retired from Federal service in 1956 after serving as Chair of the Interstate Commerce Commission in 1949-1950 and again from 1953 to 1956.
There is only routine correspondence during the period of Johnson’s Federal service, but he did receive a letter from Manila, the Philippines (2 August 1941) written by his former Rainbow Division comrade Douglas MacArthur who expressed appreciation for a letter from Johnson and stated his expectations as commander of Far Eastern forces: "This pleases me very much especially as I have full confidence that we can successfully defend the integrity of this Archipelago. If we fight I will always have before me the vision of the Rainbow." A three-page typed letter, 15 April 1942, from personal friend Louis Johnson, who represented President Roosevelt in New Delhi, cited the deteriorating situation in India but expressed his admiration for Nehru, "who in my humble opinion, is the ultimate hope in the Indian situation….He is universally trusted by everyone except the British, their satellites, and a few Musselmen." Louis Johnson was clearly disturbed by Whitehall’s repudiation of the negotiations conducted by Sir Stafford Cripps: "I think Sir Stafford returns to London a sadly disillusioned man and if he has the guts I think he has, you will be hearing much more of the inside of this story." Johnson thought that the masses of the people "want to help America" and "their willingness to help…exceeds their hatred and distrust of the British and particularly of the Indian Civil Service Commission." Johnson was incredulous that after Cripps’ departure, "the Viceroy went on a twelve day shooting trip. He and the Indian Civil Service do not yet understand there is a war on."
John Monroe Johnson was much in demand as a speaker in his various Federal posts, especially while serving as Director of the Office of Defense Transportation during and immediately after World War II. The collection contains one and a quarter linear feet of speeches and transcriptions of radio broadcasts and panel discussions. His most frequent topics included land, sea, and air transportation. Managing the nation’s transportation systems was of critical importance during the war, and Johnson proved to be a tough and able administrator of the nation’s transportation network.
A letter, 24 November , to Johnson from close friend Genevieve Wilcox Chandler, written from Brookgreen (Georgetown County, S.C.), relates news of her family and activities, recalls a gathering of mutual friends and a conversation "over our OLD contemporaries," recent changes to the landscape, some of which could be attributed to Hurricane Hazel - "62 houses were washed from Garden City (Old Ark Beach) and were left sitting like broodin’ hens all over the marsh," mentions scenes of their youth in Marion, and advises - "I told the children last night of standing by your dear mother at the MARION DEPOT and WEEPING as I waved farewell to the Marion group especially for Clark hanging from a window. I KNEW I’d never see him again. Your mother with THREE SONS going said: ‘Genevieve, I’m ashamed of you!’ She and mama were un-beatable…."