LEWISTOWN — Like a scene from a World War II romance novel, the love story of Mary Johnston Baker and the late Donald “Jim” Johnston begins as poetry and ends in tragedy.
After more than 60 years, that story is now being told — thanks to a good friend and a good find.
The Viscose Honor Roll from World War II holds the name of Donald “Jim” Johnston and was found at a local antique shop by Mary’s friend, Denise Boonie of McClure. Boonie raised enough money to purchase the monument, which will be housed and dedicated at the historic Mifflin County Courthouse on May 30.
Mary will present a picture of Jim Johnston at the ceremony, one of many attempts to keep the fallen soldier’s story of love and war alive.
Johnston was employed by the Viscose fresh out of high school in 1939. He and Mary, who were married in the early 1940s, lived in the Viscose Housing Development, in what is now known as Juniata Terrace, until Jim departed for the war in 1942.
Jim was killed in action on Oct. 20, 1944, near Anten, Sweden. Mary never knew what happened to her beloved Jim, other than the fact he was in a plane crash.
Mary recalls the day the soldier from the War Department came to the door of the home she shared with Jim’s parents in Strodes Mills. He handed her a telegram that would change her life forever.
“He handed it to me and left,” Mary, now 86 shared.
“I just knew it. I opened it and dropped it on the table. I picked up my (eight-month-old) daughter and walked upstairs. I just had to be alone for awhile.”
Weeks later she received a letter which gave her a little more information about the plane crash.
“We never even got his personal belongings. We didn’t know if his plane was shot down. We had no idea,” the widow continued, her memories as fresh as they were that day in 1944.
When Mary’s friend from church, Denise Boonie, offered to help her get the answers behind Jim’s death, Mary was grateful.
Internet research and correspondence with historians in Sweden revealed that Jim was a part of Operation Sonnie, a secret mission that aided Prisoners of War.
“The initial effort flew people and supplies in to Sweden, which would then be smuggled into Norway to help resistance forces there” an e-mail from a historian to Boonie stated.
Information also was confirmed that the plane burned at the crash site. It is still unknown whether the plane was shot down, although residents of Anten are said to have seen another plane circling over the crash site that evening, and the American aircraft appeared to be riddled with bullet holes.
A love story on Viscose Hill
That fateful day in October was the end of a love story that began in Paintersville. Mary grew up in a small house across the railroad tracks from Jim’s family in the Mifflin County village.
“We were sort of natured the same way,” recalled Mary, “We were both quiet. His brother played football and my brothers were rowdy. So we all got along.”
The teenagers took many quiet walks along the train tracks.
Jim’s family later moved to Lewistown, and fate had it that Mary’s family also moved to town, on Green Avenue.
The young couple spent many nights sitting atop Viscose Hill staring at the railroad depot and the trains going by.
“We talked about our future Ö the places we wanted to go one day,” she said.
Their dreams never grew farther than Gettysburg and other places in the state.
“We had no big dreams of traveling the country, or anything,” Mary continued.
Never did the couple dream Jim would travel beyond the United States and into Europe for the war.
“The funny thing is, (Jim) said he never wanted any air between him and the ground, other than the tires of his car,” Mary said with a laugh as she remembered Jim’s words.
When Jim had the opportunity to enlist in the service, he chose the Air Force. To this day, Mary can hardly believe his choice.
Love and war
Jim left for the war in 1942, and Mary was able to visit with him on very few occasions. She had contacted Jim by letter to tell him they were expecting their first – and only – child. Baby Mary Lee was born while Jim was gone, and she was eight-months old when he was killed. Jim never met his daughter, although he had received pictures of a very pregnant Mary and a professional portrait of the two ladies in his life.
Years after Jim had died, Mary received a letter from a woman who had been stationed with Jim. She wrote of how often the Lewistown man gushed over his bride and longed to see his little girl.
A line in the letter Mary still possesses states, “Ö no husband could love his wife as much as (Jim) loved you.”
Mary was told that Jim wore a ring she had given him and showed it to anyone who cared to look at it. He was truly homesick for his girl from Paintersville, the letter suggested.
Mary eventually remarried and temporarily moved to California. It was there that a suitcase containing letters from Jim and other tokens was stolen. Mary had believed that in many ways, other than some photos she had in a scrapbook, that suitcase was a final link to Jim.
Gone but not forgotten
Mary and Jim’s only daughter, Mary Lee, passed away in 1993. The child of Mary and Jim’s unconditional love never knew about Operation Sonnie or the research behind it. She will not get to see her father’s name on the Viscose Honor Roll, or to watch her mother dedicate the photo in his honor.
Mary Lee’s only son, and Mary and Jim’s only grandchild, Billy Johnston, lives in the western United States and will visit the courthouse with his grandmother Mary in the fall. He will bring with him his wife and Mary and Jim’s great-granddaughter.
But Mary will not be alone on May 30.
Her good friend Denise, who helped to revive Jim’s memory, will be there beside her.
And as she clutches that photograph of her beloved Jim, the sounds of the trains passing by Viscose Hill – and the sound of Jim’s voice — will no doubt echo in her ears.
Mary Johnston Baker holds a photo of her husband, Donald ‘Jim’ Johnston, in front of Lewistown’s newly restored Viscose Textile Workers Union Honor Roll, which includes the names of the factory employees who served in World War II. Johnston’s name is included on a plaque in the middle section, which pays tribute to the union workers who died during the conflict.