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Remains of WWI Medal of Honor recipient to be laid to rest May 12

After a two-year legal battle that went to the state Supreme Court, World War II Medal of Honor recipient Herschel “Woody” Williams has prevailed in his effort to have a fellow West Virginia Medal of Honor earner disinterred from an overgrown family plot in Mason County and reburied in a place of honor.

First Sgt. Chester Howard West, a World War I Army veteran, will be laid to rest on May 12 in the Donel C. Kinnard Memorial State Veterans Cemetery, in Institute. The military ceremony, which begins at 2 p.m. and is open to the public, concludes with a 21-gun salute and the playing of taps. Maj. Gen. James A. Hoyer, the state’s adjutant general, will officiate, and Williams will provide welcoming remarks.

West received his Medal of Honor for courage under fire on Sept. 26, 1918, the opening day of the Allies’ war-ending Meusee-Argonne Offensive. West was 20 years old and a member of an automatic rifle company of the 363rd Infantry Regiment when it approached German lines in thick fog and came under heavy fire from two machine guns operating from a fortified position.

“Without aid, he at once dashed through the fire and, attacking the [machine gun] nest, killed two of the gunners, one of whom was an officer,” according to West’s Medal of Honor citation. “This prompt and decisive hand-to-hand encounter on his part enabled his company to advance farther without the loss of a man.”

A native of Fort Collins, Colorado, West was living in California in September 1917, when he enlisted in the U.S. Army. Sometime in the early 1930s, he moved to the Pliny area of Mason County, where he met and married Mary Elizabeth Van Sickle Martin in December 1932.

“He’s a mysterious man,” said area historian Alice Click of Mount Alto. “We still don’t know what brought him to Pliny, West Virginia, but he became a part of West Virginia history.”

By 1935, West was working at Southside, in Mason County, as a farmhand for Sam McCausland, son of Confederate Civil War General John McCausland. On May 20 of that year, McCausland drove the West’s home and asked West to accompany him on a trip to Charleston, according to newspaper accounts of the time. When West declined, according to McCausland’s version of the incident, a struggle ensued and West reportedly struck McCausland on the head with a wrench, after which McCausland shot West in the chest, telling deputies the shooting was in self defense.

West’s widow later testified that her husband’s clothes were clean and intact just before he was rushed to the hospital, indicating to her that no struggle had taken place. After three hours of deliberation, a jury found McCausland guilty of second-degree murder.

West was buried on a ridgetop west of Southside in the Van Sickle Cemetery, the family plot of his wife’s family. The cemetery and the land surrounding it was bought in the 1970s by the Division of Natural Resources to add to the Chief Cornstalk Wildlife Management Area. The county road that once carried visitors to the graveyard was eventually closed and gated and the cemetery began to merge with the surrounding forest.

In 2012, West Virginia Public Television’s “Obscurely Famous” series included a segment in which host Jack Crutchfield located the Van Sickle Cemetery but failed to find the Medal of Honor recipient’s grave while hacking through the graveyard’s accumulation of brush with a machete.

Among those who watched the show was Derrick Jackson, who lived on Cornstalk Road, a few miles from the cemetery, but had never heard of the graveyard or West’s presence there. Intrigued, Jackson, along with members of his family and his Boy Scout troop, searched for and eventually located the cemetery, but could not initially find West’s gravesite.

Jackson made clearing and cleaning the cemetery an Eagle Scout project, and during a last round of work at the site, in December 2013, Jackson and the scouts helping him complete his project found West’s toppled grave marker under a fallen oak tree.

Jackson is expected to be among those attending West’s May 12 reburial ceremony.

Williams, who earned his Medal of Honor as a Marine corporal during the battle to wrest the island of Iwo Jima from Japanese control, hiked to West’s remote burial site several times, and became determined to give his World War I counterpart a more prominent final resting place.

“There was nothing at the old cemetery that indicated he did anything special during his time in the armed forces,” Williams said. “It’s been my belief all along that we needed to properly honor and respect this man and make sure he’s not forgotten.”

On May 12, West’s remains will be driven from Reger Funeral Home in Huntington to Donel C. Kinnard Memorial State Veterans Cemetery at Institute, escorted by a variety of police, military personnel and the Patriot Riders motorcycle group.

Burial in the veterans’ cemetery, Click said, “will honor Chester Howard West in the way he should have been honored all those years ago.”

Reach Rick Steelhammer at rsteelhammer@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5169 or follow @rsteelhammer on Twitter.

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