Latest News, WVPA Sharing

WV Supreme Court to mull final resting place for slain WWI Medal of Honor recipient


Charleston Gazette-Mail

CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A legal battle over whether the remains of a World War I Medal of Honor recipient murdered in Mason County in 1935 by the son of a Confederate general should be reburied in a place of honor at the new Donel C. Kinnard Memorial Veterans Cemetery near Institute or left in peace in the remote, barely accessible plot where he has rested for the past 81 years moves to the state Supreme Court on Feb. 15.

Derrick Jackson, after seeing the show “Obscurely Famous,” began a quest to locate the grave of Chester Howard West in Mason County. Jackson used latitude and longitude and a GPS unit to find the overgrown cemetery. Jackson and fellow Boy Scouts cleared the land and found West’s grave.
(Photo by Kenny Kemp)

The story begins in Bois de Cheppy, a forest in northeastern France, on Sept. 26, 1918, the opening day of the Allies’ decisive Meuse-Argonne Offensive, a 47-day, all-out struggle that concluded with the armistice that brought World War I to an end. Among the 1.2 million American troops taking part in the offensive was 20-year-old 1st Sgt. Chester Howard West, who served in an automatic rifle company of the 363rd Infantry Regiment, part of the U.S. Army’s 91st “Wild West” Division. 

As West’s company approached German lines in a thick morning fog, it came under fire from a machine gun nest from which two German gunners were firing with great accuracy and effectiveness, halting the Americans’ forward movement. Anxious to get his pinned-down troops out of harm’s way and moving deeper into German-held territory, West, acting alone, “at once dashed through the fire and, attacking the 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,” the citation reads.

Born in Fort Collins, Colorado, West enlisted in the U.S. Army in Los Banos, California. After his discharge from the Army in 1919, he returned to the United States and eventually made his way to West Virginia, where he married Maggie Elizabeth VanSickle, of Southside, Mason County, on Christmas Day 1932. West worked as either a farmhand or tenant farmer for Sam McCausland, the son of Civil War Confederate Gen. John McCausland, on the family’s extensive landholdings in the Pliny area.
Chester Howard West as he appeared as a U.S. Army sergeant during World War I. West was awarded the Medal of Honor.
(Submitted photo)

On May 20, 1935, following an argument, West was shot once in the abdomen by McCausland, and taken to a hospital in Gallipolis, Ohio, where he died later that day. 

According to newspaper accounts of the time, McCausland drove to West’s home and asked West to accompany him to Charleston. When West declined, a struggle followed and, according to McCausland’s account, West struck his employer on the head with a wrench. McCausland admitted shooting West, but said it was an act of self-defense. 

During McCausland’s trial, West’s wife testified that her husband’s clothes were clean and intact just before he was taken to the hospital, indicating to her that no struggle took place. The jury apparently agreed, convicting McCausland of second-degree murder. He was sentenced to 18 years in prison, but he reportedly was ordered released in 1940 by Gov. Homer Holt. 

West was not the first employee McCausland was accused of killing. In 1915, he struck farm hand George Jeffers in the head with a shovel after Jeffers allegedly ignored his boss’s orders not to drive a team of horses through a rough spot in a county road, according to newspaper accounts.

Jeffers died of the head injury. McCausland was indicted for murder, but a jury opted to convict him of involuntary manslaughter, for which he received a $100 fine and a one-year jail term with part of it to be served working with Mason County road crews. 

McCausland appealed the verdict, and the conviction was overturned on a technicality. It is not clear how much jail time McCausland served for either killing.

West was buried in his wife’s family plot, the VanSickle Cemetery, on a ridgetop west of Southside. His widow later remarried and moved to South Charleston.

A marker was erected at his burial site listing his Army affiliation, rank, place of birth and state in which he enlisted, but not mentioning the fact that he was a Medal of Honor recipient. During the 1970s, the cemetery and 11,722 acres surrounding it were bought by the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources to create the Chief Cornstalk Wildlife Management Area. 

The country road that VanSickle descendants once drove on to reach the cemetery and care for it was eventually closed and gated, and the graveyard began to merge into the surrounding forest and overgrown grazing land.

In 2012, Jack Crutchfield, host of West Virginia Public Television’s “Obscurely Famous” series, made an attempt to locate the Medal of Honor recipient’s gravesite. He hiked 1.5 miles from the nearest open road to reach the overgrown cemetery, and used a machete to clear away brush as he searched for West’s headstone, which, after searching the site, he believed to have been covered by a fallen tree.

Among those watching the “Obscurely Famous” attempt to locate West’s headstone on television was Derrick Jackson, who lives a short distance west of the cemetery, on Cornstalk Road. 

“I’d never heard of the cemetery, and neither had my parents or any of our neighbors,” Jackson said. 

But Jackson was intrigued and, in 2013, after going online and searching maps and aerial views of the area, found what he believed to be the cemetery and an abandoned section of road he thought might take him to it. He failed to locate the plot on his first attempt, but returned a short time later, armed with latitude and longitude coordinates for the suspected cemetery site and a GPS unit, and found the cemetery — but not West’s grave. 

Jackson, then a member of Boy Scout Troop 259, decided to make clearing the cemetery of brush and fallen trees and documenting the gravesites found there an Eagle Scout project. He and nine other Scouts put in more than 70 hours of work on the project, which included sawing up and removing a giant oak tree that had fallen on the cemetery. Once the tree segments were removed, several broken headstones emerged, including West’s.

After word of Jackson’s location of West’s gravesite got out, World War II Marine Corps veteran and Medal of Honor recipient Hershel “Woody” Williams, who had heard of the grave’s existence several years earlier, hiked to the site to investigate the feasibility of disinterring West’s remains and relocating them to a much more visible and accessible site, in the new Donel C. Kinnard Memorial Veterans Cemetery.

However, when Williams appeared in Mason County Circuit Court in February 2016 and succeeded in obtaining a court order allowing West’s remains to be removed and reburied, several descendants of the World War I hero’s wife objected, and one, Roger VanSickle, appealed to the West Virginia Supreme Court.

In a brief for the Supreme Court filed in behalf of VanSickle, attorney and WVU law professor Robert M. Bastress Jr., maintains that Mason County Circuit Court lacks the authority to order the removal and transfer of human remains buried on public land, and erred in favoring the disinterment and relocation of West’s remains to the new veterans’ cemetery over the wishes of family members to keep the body in its current resting place.

Williams’ attorney, Jason Spears of Huntington, argues in his brief that Roger VanSickle is related only by marriage to West and, thus, is not a blood relative, disqualifying him from being legally considered a surviving next of kin to the Medal of Honor recipient.

“Since the filing of this appeal, more members of Chester Howard West’s family have discovered this proceeding and have come forward supporting his interment of honor, including, but not limited to, three blood nieces and two blood nephews, who wrote supporting the removal.”

Mason County genealogist Rebecca DeCoy, whose grandmother was related by marriage to the VanSickles family, played a key role in locating West’s relatives and informing them of the planned reburial. DeCoy said that when she heard of efforts by Williams, himself a Medal of Honor recipient, to have West re-buried in a place of honor, “that was all the inspiration I needed,” she wrote in an email interview. “It became an obligation to locate a living relative.”

DeCoy tracked down Census records for 1910 that showed that, after West’s mother had divorced, she had another child with a second husband, leading her eventually to West’s niece, who lives in the Washington state. Since then, she said she has located seven other blood descendants who have agreed to support the exhumation.

Spears added in his brief that West’s nieces and nephews have informed him “that they will be attending any ceremony that occurs, as they were unaware of Mr. West’s current location. This is exactly the equity that the Court decided in this case. It is proper for [West] to be placed in a place of honor so unknown and lost family members may connect with their Medal of Honor descendant.”

See more from the Charleston Gazette-Mail

Comments are closed.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

Subscribe to Our Newsletter

And get our latest content in your inbox

Invalid email address