News and stories

Supreme Court Decision on Medal of Honor Burial Pleases Family

June 13, 2017

Linda Harris |The State Journal

Very soon, Medal of Honor recipient Hershel “Woody” Williams hopes to give a World War I hero the recognition he earned, but didn’t receive, when he died 82 years ago.

Williams has fought for more than three years to have the remains of Chester Howard West moved to the Donel C. Kinnard Memorial State Veterans Cemetery in Institute. Williams says West can be buried there with full military honors in a grave marked with a special headstone denoting his special status as a WWI Medal of Honor recipient.

It’s a far cry from the VanSickle Cemetery, the small family burial ground where he was buried on May 20, 1935. Located deep in what is now the 12,000-acre Chief Cornstalk Wildlife Preserve, the state acquired the property in the 1970s. At some point, the state closed the road leading to the cemetery and put up a gate. Eventually, the road and burial grounds were overtaken by trees and brush and became impassable. The cemetery fell into disrepair, with the graves — including West’s — overgrown.

Williams, now 93, hiked to the remote site two years ago, working his way through briers and around fallen trees to see for himself the condition of the cemetery where the WWI Medal of Honor recipient had been laid to rest.

“I felt that the guy had earned the right to be recognized and honored,” said Williams, now 93, “and it shouldn’t be done where it was because of the location of the cemetery, and there was nothing on his gravesite that even said he was a Medal of Honor recipient in World War I. It did give his military organization, but that didn’t mean a whole lot.”

It did, however, mean a lot to Williams: West, a sergeant with the Army’s 363rd Infantry Regiment, saved countless lives in September 1918 when he singlehandedly took out a pair of German machine gunners near Bois-de-Cheppy, France, at the beginning of the war-ending Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The citation accompanying his Medal of Honor said West, “without aid ... dashed through (enemy) fire and, attacking the nest, killed two of the gunners. This prompt and decisive hand-to-hand encounter on his part enabled his company to advance farther without the loss of a man.”

After his discharge, West returned to California for a time, then moved east. He eventually ended up in West Virginia, where he married a widow, Maggie VanSickle Martin, and settled in Mason County. Three years later he died, shot in the abdomen as he sat in his car. The bullet perforated his intestine, and he died a day later in a nearby Ohio hospital. His landlord, Sam McCausland, the son of Confederate General John McCausland, was convicted of his murder.

West’s widow had him buried in the VanSickle Cemetery, the family burial grounds and final resting place of her first husband, Emory Martin. Her third husband, Charles A. Smith, also is buried there, as are her parents, Samuel and Rebecca Jane Birchfield VanSickle. Margaret Van Sickle West, however, is buried in Graceland Memorial Park in South Charleston.

“I’m not quite sure (people) recognized the significance of the Medal of Honor,” Williams said. “We didn’t have any WWI Medal of Honor recipients in West Virginia, so they probably had no idea what it meant or what he had done to be a recipient. It probably didn’t mean a thing to them then.”

By the time Williams got to the cemetery, a local Boy Scout had located VanSickle Cemetery and cleared the fallen trees and brush away as part of his Eagle Scout project. West’s headstone had been broken in two by a falling tree, so the Scout had propped the broken part up with part of a tree branch.

“Nothing about (the gravesite) was remarkable,” Williams said. “No one would have every known it was there or that he was the recipient of a Medal of Honor. Someone told me hunters had seen the cemetery before, but since it was all grown up, they didn’t report it or do anything about it. They just thought it was abandoned — and, in a sense, it was.”

Williams petitioned Mason County Circuit Court for permission to move West’s body to Kinnard Cemetery, but met resistance from descendants of Margaret VanSickle Martin West who wanted him to remain in their family plot. Circuit Judge David Nibert decided in Williams’ favor, but the VanSickle descendants appealed to the West Virginia Supreme Court. The court affirmed the lower court’s decision June 7 in a 3-2 decision. In his dissent, Chief Justice Allen Loughry said the majority was wrong to override the VanSickle family’s objections, adding that, “Although Mr. Williams’ intent and purpose were clearly honorable, the circuit court should have dismissed the petition on its face given the obvious lack of standing to file the action,” he’d said.

Williams, a Fairmont native, said he was relieved with the decision.

“If I could have jumped 10 feet off the floor, I would have,” he said. “But I’m too old to do that anymore; maybe at 21 I could have. But I’m absolutely thrilled the court ruled in our favor. I was a little leery they were going to (reverse) and so very thankful they didn’t.”

While the VanSickle descendants still could take it to a higher court, Williams said he’s hoping it won’t come to that — but if it does, he said West’s blood relatives have now been located and indicated their willingness to intercede if necessary. Because they weren’t part of the original action, their wishes couldn’t be considered by the state Supreme Court.

West’s niece, Penelope Linterman, said the family had lost track of him after he headed east, though she uncovered his military exploits during the course of some family research a few years ago — enough to know he had been a Medal of Honor recipient, had been murdered and was buried somewhere in West Virginia. It wasn’t until Williams, with the help of some genealogist friends, tracked her down that she found the answers.

“We had no idea what had happened to him,” said Linterman, who makes her home in the state of Washington. “Chester’s mother was born in 1862. He was born late in 1889. My father wasn’t born until 1902. He was the last of her eight children and by the time he was old enough (to remember), everybody had scattered. I don’t think my father knew what had happened to Chester; I don’t remember ever discussing it with him.”

Linterman said she’s spoken to at least seven of her cousins, all of them directly descended from West and eager to see their uncle reinterred with honors in Kinnard Cemetery. She said several of them plan to attend the service.

“We knew Chester was living in Los Banos when he went in (the military),” Linterman said. “We think maybe he came home and saw his mother in Idaho Falls, then went to West Virginia — we have no idea why. Maybe it was an Army buddy or a job. We just don’t know. In those days, West Virginia was a continent away.”

She said she’s not sure if her father, Herbert, ever saw his older brother after the war or knew that, in addition to the Medal of Honor, it was reported he’d also been awarded England’s Victoria Cross, France’s Croix de Guerre and the Military Order of Italy.

“This would have meant the world to my dad,” Linterman said. “He was too young for WWI, too old for WWII — he tried to enlist but they wouldn’t take him. Dad was a very proud man, very accomplished. He would have been absolutely stunned to have learned of his exploits and what Chester did. This has been a real window to the past.”

Linterman said her surviving cousins, particularly, felt West’s remains should be moved to a more accessible location, even though Margert VanSickle West’s nieces and nephews had insisted he remain where he was.

“The only story I heard was that his widow had said she wanted all (three) of her husbands buried in the same place, but she’s not even buried there,” Linterman said. “That was brought up in our family — should we be asking that he be moved if she was there, but she’s not there — she’s somewhere else entirely. If she felt that strongly about him being buried at that cemetery, why didn’t they bury her there?”

The West case has been a pet project for Williams, who had started the Herschel Woody Williams Medal of Honor Foundation years ago to honor Gold Star Families by establishing monuments honoring their sacrifices in communities across the country. The foundation also awards scholarships to eligible Gold Star children.

“I was taught that once you start doing something, you had to finish it; we were raised that way,” he said. “You don’t leave something half done. I feel like we’ve accomplished our goal, so far as being able to give (West) the honors he deserves. But it’s certainly not about me; it’s about him — he’s the center of this whole thing.”