The task undertaken by F.O. Chick at the American Cemetery in Is-sur-Tille, France, on Nov. 5, 1920, was a somber one – disinterring the remains of one Sgt. Otis Stone, who had died in service to his country almost two years earlier.
But it was also a necessary task, performed in accordance with the wishes of Stone’s father, Andy Stone, an ocean away in a town called Fredonia, Kentucky. His son would be brought back to the United States, for re-burial among his brothers in arms in another southern city – Arlington, Virginia.
Now, Sgt. Stone’s memory remains alive, both at the Arlington National Cemetery, in the hometown he left behind and in the Indiana city where he lived before joining the Army and its cause in the First World War.
At 2 p.m. on the second Saturday of each month, on Chestnut Street in Evansville, Ind., members of Otis Stone Post 354 of the American Legion gather for their monthly meeting.
The post was chartered in 1929. Evansville’s World War I monument, dedicated three years earlier, includes Stone’s name, with a notation – “colored.”
The Stone post, according to Legion.org, “made a name for itself almost from the beginning.” Its drum corps marched in the National Convention Parade in Chicago in 1939, for example. And members remain active today, engaged in post and community service activities.
But for years, the story of the post’s namesake remained largely unknown to its members and leaders.
“I thought Otis Stone was a myth,” Post Commander Mike Patton told the Evansville Courier & Press in February 2004. The post had just been rededicated in Stone’s honor, in a ceremony featuring an unveiling of a portrait of Stone in his Army uniform.
The search for information and records on Stone that had begun 45 years earlier had come to a successful end.
Post Service Officer and Historian Luther Nixon “spent months making phone calls and going through military records at the National Archives to learn all that he could about Stone,” the Courier reported.
That work, complemented by additional fact-finding from researchers Peggy and Ken Gilkey, Princeton natives now residing in southern Indiana, and Angela Blair of Fredonia, helps that story be retold.
The 1910 U.S. Census lists Otis, along with parents Andy and Mildred Stone and sister Bessie, living on Garner Avenue in Fredonia. Andy, 46, was a railroad section hand. Otis, 18, worked as a farm laborer. Bessie, 14, was identified as a “wash woman at home,” the Gilkeys noted. Two other children had died, the Census added.
The research indicated that Otis moved to Vanderburgh County, Indiana, in September 1912 and found work in an Evansville hotel.
He entered Army service on April 28, 1918, in Evansville. The U.S. had entered the war a year earlier, and more than 4 million U.S. military personnel would be mobilized during the conflict.
Stone was sent to Camp Zachary Taylor in Louisville for training and was ultimately assigned to Company B of the 317th Labor Battalion. In June, he was sent overseas.
“They had to wait until there were enough colored troops to fill a boat and fill the spaces that were allocated to them because they would not mix whites and blacks on the boat at the same time, although they were going to the same war,” Nixon told the Courier.
Nixon’s research indicated that Stone served as a mess sergeant, helping oversee food preparation and mess personnel.
Four months after his arrival in France, the Armistice was signed, bringing the war to an end. That day, Nov. 11, 1918, was the catalyst for today’s Veterans Day observances.
Troops began to be sent home from Europe, but fate had different plans for Stone. It was not combat, but bronchopneumonia, that claimed his life in January 1919, at Camp Hospital 41, APO 712.
He was buried Jan. 20 at the American Cemetery in Is-sur-Tille, a small city near Dijon in east central France.
Initially, his father directed the remains to stay there, according to Army documents, but later changed his mind, as noted in a letter he dictated to Army officials in May 1920:
“Dear Sir: Since I understand that the bodies of the soldiers that fell on the other side are to be returned if desired, will say after thinking over the matter and talking with my daughter, we have decided to ask that the body of my son Sgt. Otis E. Stone be transferred to Arlington, Va., and interment in the National Cemetery at that place.”
And so, Otis Stone’s final journey began. From the cemetery in Is-sur-Tille to the morgue there on Nov. 5, and from there to the port of Bordeaux, where the remains were received on Nov. 10.
On Nov. 29, it left Bordeaux on the S.S. Wheaton, a ship bound for the U.S. It arrived in the port of Hoboken, N.J., on Dec. 15. It left Hoboken for Arlington on Jan. 3.
On Friday, Jan. 14, 1921, at 2:30 p.m. local time, a funeral service for Stone was held there and his remains reburied.
This Veterans Day, members of Otis Stone American Legion Post 354 will pay tribute to all the men and women who served their country, including the Fredonia native for whom the post is named. And his story, rediscovered, will live on.
“We can truly put him to rest,” Nixon told the Courier, “because we know who he is, what he did, how he did it, and why he did it.”