Camp Gordon Johnston Museum searching for living relatives of Black soldiers who trained along the Forgotten Coast in WWII

Published: Feb. 25, 2022 at 2:44 PM EST
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (WCTV) - As Black History Month nears its end, the search for answers is just beginning at Carrabelle’s Camp Gordon Johnston WWII Museum.

Thanks to a generous donation from the family of a World War Two captain, the museum has discovered more about the all-Black companies who trained in Franklin County.

Now, the museum is engaging in a mission to find living relatives of the soldiers, many of whom never received proper recognition.

Volunteer curator Lisa Keith-Lucas says, for many years, the museum knew very little about the eight all-Black amphibious truck companies who were known to train at the camp.

“We had very few names, but then we got lucky,” she said.

The luck came in the form of two sisters, originally from California, who are the daughters of Captain John Mellen. He was a white officer who led an all-Black company, as was tradition in the segregated armed forces back then.

His company was the 818th.

Leslie M. Holland recently moved to Ocala, and in the move, discovered hundreds of letters from her father, revealing a new side to their beloved parent.

“We were raised knowing just bits and snippets, like many men, our dad hid things from the war,” she said.

Many of the letters were written from Camp Gordon Johnston. The sisters looked up the name, found the museum, and reached out. Keith-Lucas was thrilled.

The all-Black companies were often given little recognition, and many just went on with their lives after the war, she said.

“These units were not celebrated, and sometimes the awards they earned were not given to them until decades after the fact,” she said.

For the past month, the museum has tried to change that trend. Over one hundred cards are on the walls of a temporary exhibit, each one sharing what we know about the members of the 818th, and the 476th, a separate company that spent time in Iwo Jima. A search request to the National Archives revealed a partial roster for that unit.

The 818th was sent to England in early 1944, and stormed Utah Beach on D-Day, Keith-Lucas said.

She said the experience has been thrilling, but also melancholy.

“It’s really sad in a way because if I had been doing this 30 years ago, I could meet them,” she said. “But now, of course, they’re all gone now.”

The museum has posted many of the soldier’s names and hometowns on its social media channels, hoping to connect with living relatives to help gain a complete picture of the soldiers who trained there.

So far, they’ve received few tips or connections. They’re encouraging anyone who may have a connection to a soldier to review the rosters of both companies, available on the museum’s website.

The temporary exhibit closes Saturday, but a condensed version of the display will move into a permanent spot at the museum.

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