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Information is sought on West Virginia WWII soldier killed while helping to free Belgium

By GREG JORDAN | Bluefield Daily Telegraph, W.Va. | Published: January 19, 2021

PRINCETON, W. Va. (Tribune News Service) — More than 76 years ago, a Mercer County man made the ultimate sacrifice for his country when a major military operation dropped thousands of Allied paratroopers behind enemy lines in war-torn Europe.

On Sunday, Sept. 17, 1944, a huge armada of aircraft carrying American and British paratroopers took off from airfields all over southern England and headed for occupied Holland. They were part of Operation Market-Garden, an ambitious plan to invade Germany and defeat the Nazis by Christmas.

Market, the airborne half of the operation, called for dropping thousands of paratroopers near bridges leading north to the Dutch city of Arnhem and its bridge over the Rhine River. The paratroops were to seize the bridges and hold them while Garden, the ground forces formed by British Second Army, rushed north up a single highway to Arnhem. The goal was to then cross the Arnhem bridge into northern Germany and assault the Ruhr, where many of that nation's industries were located.

The operation, which was the vision of British Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, was quickly put together. Allied planners assumed there would be light resistance, but the German Army fought back furiously and the plan ultimately failed to reach its objective. Many people with an interest in military history know about Operation Market-Garden through books such as "A Bridge Too Far" by Cornelius Ryan, which was later made into a movie by the same name starring actors including Anthony Hopkins, Gene Hackman and the late Sean Connery.

Both the American and British forces suffered heavy casualties during the battle, and the graves of many paratroopers and other soldiers are still in Europe today. Not all of the military aircraft carrying paratroopers to their drop zones reached Holland due to German antiaircraft fire. One resident of Belgium, where the British Army launched its dash north into Holland, learned while researching his community's World War II history that some Americans had lost their lives there when their planes and gliders crashed near his hometown. And one of those American soldiers called Princeton, W.Va., home.

Gil Geerings, who reached out to the Bluefield Daily Telegraph, said that he's a member of the nonprofit organization "Battle for the Locks," which works to preserve local history and honor the members of foreign armed forces who helped liberate Belgium during World War II.

Geerings lives in Mol, Belgium a town near the municipalities of Geel and Retie. These communities are close to the Escaut Canal where the British started their advance into Holland. Geerings was doing some research when he learned about Allied airplanes and gliders that crashed near his community while Operation Market-Garden was underway.

"During my research, I received a picture of a field grave near my home where unknown British soldiers were," he recalled.

He could see some American infantry helmets in the photograph among the British helmets, but could not find a direct connection.

"For many years my questions remained unanswered until I was reading a book about airplanes and gliders that crashed in Belgium during Operation Market-Garden," Geerings said. "My eyes fell on the crash of a glider on Sept. 17, 1944; which occurred not that far from where I live."

The book did not provide many details, but Geerings did further research and gradually received enough information to reconstruct the story behind the crash. He learned that the Americans in the field grave were Private Teddy T. Johnson of Princeton, W.Va. and Private Roy G. Millican of Alabama. Both soldiers were members of the 101st Signal Co., 101st Airborne Div.

"Because German soldiers removed most of their personal items, they were buried as unknown soldiers," Geerings stated.

Geerings learned during his research that when the glider Johnson was aboard crashed, the passengers survived; however, they were behind enemy lines and were soon surrounded by German soldiers.

"Their glider was quickly surrounded by the enemy, but surrendering was not an option," he said. "They had a very important passenger, a cipher operator."

The paratroopers could not allow the operator nor his classified documents to fall into enemy hands. They successfully fought their way out, but Johnson was mortally wounded along with Millican, Geerings said.

The graves were opened in 1945 by the Red Cross and the authorities concluded that the two men were Americans. An American chaplain took charge of the remains. Millican's remains were taken to Alabama while Johnson was first buried in the nearby Leopoldsburg cemetery and finally brought to the Ardennes American Cemetery and Memorial Neuville-en-Condroz in Liège, Belgium, Geerings stated.

Geerings learned that Johnson received the Purple Heart, and assumed he had fought in Normandy, France. Doing research online, he was able to find the relatives of Private Millican, and was trying to reach out to Johnson's family as well.

"I was able to find some obituaries online and found that his parents where Worthie and Villa Farley Johnson of Princeton," he said. "He had one sister, Edna and four brothers: Clyde W. Johnson, James E. Johnson, Earl C. Johnson and Eugene F. 'Shorty' Johnson from Princeton but sadly he passed away in 2015.

"It is now more than 76 years ago that this man gave his life for our freedom," Geerings said. "I can only assume that his relatives never found out exactly what happened to him."

Geerings said he can be contacted by emailing Gil.geerings@telenet.be or gil.geerings@gmail.com

"Like so many others, he gave his live for our freedom and we must remember this," Geerings said. "His story is just a little story in World War II, but it is these small stories that make history."

gjordan@bdtonline.com

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