Sailor's WWII Letters Discovered in Antique Shop

Writing on a paper with a pen.

HAVERHILL, Mass. -- Mystery solved -- at least partly.

A canvas-and-leather bag containing family photos and letters written to relatives in Haverhill by a sailor during and just after World War II was discovered recently in an antique shop in New Hampshire.

The items tell the story of the sailor's time away from home.

The discovery has opened the door to another mystery -- and now family members are looking to find the sailor's daughter, if she is still alive.

Charles Edward Johnston, who was born in Haverhill in 1920 but later moved to New Hampshire, had written the letters to family members in Haverhill during and just after the war. Somehow they ended up in a small carry bag along with some family photos and two Vietnam War era military caps that appear to have no connection to Johnston, who died in 1955.

The bag was discovered earlier this summer by 9-year-old Nicholas Williams of, coincidentally, Johnston, Rhode Island, while he, his 7-year-old sister, Sofia, and their parents, Patrizia and P.J. Williams, were vacationing in New Hampshire.

Nicholas said he was poking around Arnold's Antiques and Collectibles in North Woodstock, New Hampshire, with his mother and sister when he discovered an interesting looking item.

"I like anything old ... you can tell if it's old if it's worn and faded, which caught my attention," Nicholas said of his initial discovery of the bag.

But because the store clerk didn't know how to price the bag, Nicholas' mom agreed to return in August when the shop owner was there.

"When we went back, I wasn't thinking about what was in the bag, only that I wanted it," Nicholas said.

Patrizia Williams said the shop owner spread out the contents of the bag and then gave it all to her with the understanding that she would try to find the family it belonged to.

So Williams posted her discovery on Facebook, and before long she was contacted by one of Charles Johnston's nieces, Valerie Van Meier of Nelson, New Hampshire.

Van Meier said a genealogist had informed her of the discovery, so she contacted her cousin Lucy Dunn of Bradford, New Hampshire, who is also one of Johnston's nieces. They reached out to Patrizia Williams and made arrangements to meet her and her children on Tuesday at the Haverhill Public Library.

It was the first time Van Meier and Dunn had seen the letters.

Mayor James Fiorentini was there to welcome them, and to give Nicholas a citation thanking him for uncovering a piece of Haverhill's history.

Nicholas said he's still wondering how the bag wound up in an antique shop in New Hampshire.

"I could not believe what they found," said Lucy Dunn, who explained that her mother and Valerie's mother were Charles Johnston's sisters.

One of the letters was addressed to Johnston's aunt and uncle, Mr. and Mrs. Frank O'Harvey at 21 Riverside Ave. in Haverhill. It was dated Feb. 11, 1946 -- just months after the war ended.

An earlier letter addressed to Johnston's grandmother, Mrs. Edward Johnston of 11 Lincoln Ave., Haverhill, was dated Jan. 29, 1942, and was sent from the USS Lexington just a few months before it was engaged in the Battle of the Coral Sea.

In the letter, Johnston told his grandmother that he was glad to hear things were well with the family at home, and that he was feeling good.

In the June 19, 1942, edition of the Newmarket News, a front-page story notes how Johnston had jumped overboard from his ship to save his life at Pearl Harbor and later was a survivor of the aircraft carrier USS Lexington sinking in the Battle of the Coral Sea.

His parents, Mr. and Mrs. Edward Johnston of Lee, New Hampshire, told the newspaper that their son had been aboard the USS Oklahoma during the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.

"His body was covered in a thick coating of oil when he reached shore," his parents told the Newmarket News, noting that their son was a "good swimmer."

Dunn said she learned her uncle was born in Haverhill on June 23, 1920, and that he attended the West Newbury School before his family moved to Lee, New Hampshire. Johnston attended Newmarket High School, where he excelled in athletics and graduated with the Class of 1938, and went on to become a semi-pro baseball star before enlisting in the Navy in October 1940.

Now that the letters and photos, including one of Johnston as a teenager holding a baseball bat and one of Dunn's mother are in the hands of Johnston's nieces, there is another mystery they hope to solve.

"His obituary said he left his wife and a 3-year-old daughter in Chicago," Lucy Dunn said about her uncle Charles Johnston. "We don't know who his wife was, but we want to find his daughter or her children. We want to pay this forward. It's only right."

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