- Associated Press - Sunday, June 7, 2015

SOUTHSIDE, W.Va. (AP) - Thanks to the efforts of a Mason County Boy Scout, the final resting place of a West Virginia farm worker who was awarded the Medal of Honor for valor during World War I has been reclaimed from the obscurity of passing time and the encroachment of regenerating forest.

Derrick Jackson, with the help of family members and other Boy Scouts, has spent years finding and uncovering the grave of Chester Howard West, a 20-year-old first sergeant in an automatic rifle section of the 363rd Infantry regiment, a part of the U.S. Army’s 91st “Wild West” Division.

On Sept. 26, 1918, the opening day of the Allies’ decisive, war-ending Meuse-Argonne Offensive, West approached German lines near Bois-de-Cheppy, France.

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

After the war, West returned to civilian life. A native of Colorado who enlisted in the Army in California, he eventually made his way to West Virginia, where he married Maggie Elizabeth Van Sickle of Southside on Christmas Day of 1932. West began working 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.

On May 20, 1935, West was shot once in the abdomen by Sam McCausland, using a rifle once owned by his father. The Medal of Honor recipient was taken to a hospital in Gallipolis, Ohio, where he died.

According to news accounts of the time, McCausland drove to West’s home and asked West to accompany him to Charleston. West declined, and according to McCausland’s account, a struggle ensued and West struck him on the head with a wrench. McCausland admitted shooting West, but said it was in self-defense. West’s widow 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 — who had also been charged with the murder of a farmhand in 1915 — guilty of second-degree murder. It’s not clear how much jail time McCausland served for either offense.

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

Then, in 2012, West Virginia Public Television’s “Obscurely Famous” series aired a segment that included host Jack Crutchfield’s machete-assisted visit to the Van Sickle Cemetery in an effort to locate West’s grave.

“Some members of my family watched the show, and since I live on Cornstalk Road a short distance from the wildlife management area, asked me if I knew about the cemetery or Mr. West’s grave,” said Jackson, a member of Boy Scout Troop 259. “I’d never heard of the cemetery, and neither had my parents or any of our neighbors.”

Jackson was intrigued, though.

Two years ago, after going online and consulting maps and aerial views of the area, he located the cemetery, and identified an old road segment that he thought would take him to it.

“Big mistake!” he said. “We followed an old road bed until it became so overgrown we were practically crawling to get through the brush. After several hours we gave up and headed home.”

After getting GPS coordinates to the cemetery, Jackson made a second attempt to find it.

“This time we followed a little trail the manager of the wildlife management area had mowed, and we came to a place where we saw some off-colored bushes that stood out from the rest of the forest — they didn’t look like they belonged there,” he said.

The bushes turned out to be decades-old ornamental plantings that had been grown to beautify the cemetery. Jackson and his fellow searchers saw a few grave markers under the brush, but not West’s headstone — which had been knocked over and covered by a giant, fallen oak tree.

Jackson, still determined to find West’s resting place, decided to make clearing the cemetery and finding the soldier’s headstone an Eagle Scout project. Last year, on the day after Christmas, he and a group of Scouts and family members began implementing their plan.

Chainsaws, brush trimmers and other tools were brought to the site by a tractor and four-wheeler supplied by Jackson’s father, Tim. Conditions turned wet and muddy overnight, so to avoid carving ruts in the grassy trail leading to the site, Jackson and the 10 volunteers who helped with the project hiked the three-mile round trip from the nearest passable road to continue the work.

“Ten people put in 72.5 hours of work on the project,” Jackson said.

After they sawed up and removed the fallen oak tree, several broken headstones emerged, including West’s marker, which includes his rank, military affiliation, state of enlistment and date of death — but no mention of his Medal of Honor status.

Jackson and his Scout group did what they could to repair West’s marker and that of another person whose headstone was broken by the collapsed oak.

After documenting and giving a presentation on his project, Jackson earned his Eagle Scout recognition. Last month, Jackson’s work was also recognized by Maj. Gen. James Hoyer, adjutant general of the West Virginia National Guard, and the state’s sole surviving Medal of Honor recipient, Hershel “Woody”Williams, who earned his medal as a Marine on Iwo Jima during World War II.

“You’ve brought a lot of visibility to an issue that may be resolved by having Sgt. West’s remains disinterred and reburied in a place of honor,” Hoyer told the Eagle Scout. “I think you’ve done a very significant thing.”

“We’re trying to get a court order to allow (West) to be moved to the new (Donel C. Kinnard Memorial State) Veterans Cemetery,” explained Williams, 91, who has personally hiked to Van Sickle Cemetery to view West’s grave and assess what will be needed to exhume and transport it.

Medal of Honor recipients are entitled to military headstones bearing the Medal of Honor symbol and gold lettering to denote the service member’s special status.

Jackson said he considered it an honor to help reclaim West’s gravesite and restore a family cemetery.

“There’s still work that can be done,” he said, like marking the path to the cemetery and installing fencing along the graveyard’s perimeter. “I’m hopeful that I can continue what’s been done or that another Scout will pick this up as a project as well.”


Information from: The Charleston Gazette, https://www.wvgazette.com

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