Roy Exum: Mama Stone Never Wavered

Monday, May 13, 2019 - by Roy Exum
Roy Exum
Roy Exum

This Mother’s Day weekend they buried Buster Stone down in Andalusia. It rained but no one seemed to care because, as Mama Stone knew when he and all the others in south Alabama signed on for World War II, one day Buster would be coming back. The last anyone heard of Buster was when he lost radio contact on Oct. 22, 1943 over German-occupied France. After 72 years Mama Stone would have loved the hero’s welcome that, at long last was his, and to imagine it would happen on a day that belonged to her.

In the current issue of ‘Aviation World, Chief Warrant Officer Leonard Momeny wrote about a nation that would turn relentless as it never forgot, the fierce yet beautiful love of a Gold Star mother, and the South – it’s people unashamedly adding their tears to create many puddles other than rain.

His is a story that mocks the malcontent politicians in our midst and their false claim “America never was great.” To the contrary, it is the best illustration of the greatest nation in the world and proves it as we imagine Mama Stone standing for wistful hours, seemingly alone at her screen door but with all of a proud Andalusia there in spirit, and never leaving.

* * *

LIEUTENANT STONE’S LONG FLIGHT HOME

[Written by CW4 (Chief Warrant Officer) Leonard Momeny, this article appeared in the July-September 2019, issues of ‘Aviation Digest.’]

On the 22nd of October, 1943, Second Lt. Walter “Buster” Stone had begun to mount his P-47D Thunderbolt, aircraft number 42-7989.  It was another cold day at Metfield, United Kingdom, home to the 353rd Fighter Group, 350th Fighter Squadron.  Still new to the squadron, 2LT Stone was a recent transfer from flight training in the United States and was still learning quite a bit about the life of the fighter pilot.  To Buster, today was another day to learn, another day to fly, and another day to protect the bomber crews flying into occupied France. 

This was a critical mission set in the eyes of young Buster, at that time only 24, for more than the obvious reasons of helping to end the war.  It was so important because his own brother served as a navigator on similar American bombers, and Buster kind of liked the idea of protecting his younger brother.

The mission brief had concluded as any other, and White Flight, a fighter escort assigned to protect a flight of B-26 Bombers from the 9th Air Force, was about to depart on another mission over occupied France.  The weather was fairly decent over England, a pleasant change from typical days, but once over the Channel, just prior to the coast of France, it was briefed that the flight would see a substantial increase in cloud cover. 

If that happened, they would simply close up the formation, stay on each other’s wing, and fly through the cloud cover.  It was thought of as almost advantageous, because then the FLAK guns could not engage you directly, but instead hunt and peck the sky by shooting at aircraft sounds.

As the Pratt & Whitney R-2800 roared to life, Buster knew he had every bit of horsepower and armament that a pilot could want at his disposal, should the need arise.  Like most pilots during this time, Buster was hopeful; after all, Italy had just surrendered in September, and the Army was advancing to Rome.  It wouldn’t be long until the Yanks were in France and then straight into Germany. 

Once that was done, he could go home—back to Andalusia, Alabama…back to the waiting arms of his young wife—and back to his Mama Stone, who worried every day about her four sons who were currently serving the U.S. Military.  You see, Buster had a big family and was one of nine siblings. 

Aside from Buster and his brother, Earl, who were both currently serving in the Army Air Forces in the Allied Air Campaign over occupied Europe, there were two other brothers, Bill and Doyle, also serving in the Philippines. It seemed that the Stone Family had been ripped asunder and spread to the four corners of the earth, but Mama Stone knew everyone would come back.

Buster and his flight were finally ready, and the P-47D had little trouble lifting off the ground despite the weight of his eight, fully loaded .50-caliber Browning machine guns combined with 10 x 5 inch- (127 mm) unguided rockets.  The dependable Pratt & Whitney engine made easy work of the craft, which now weighed nearly 13,000 lb.  The mission was a go and after takeoff, Buster easily slid into slot four, his assigned position in the White Flight formation.  Before long, the flight would find itself over Nazi-occupied France.

It was to be as the weather projected, with cloud cover becoming increasingly thick after crossing the channel.  Flight into and out of clouds was something they had trained to do, but this seemed incredibly challenging.  White Flight lead would call visibility in clouds to be less than 100 ft, and it was starting to get difficult to see the rest of the flight, regardless of how close they were to each other.  Buster’s P47D lurched along with the rest of the flight, and the White Flight lead thought things would get better for the flight at 16,000 ft; however, the change in altitude did little to arrest the concern of lead. 

Finally, the decision was made to abort the mission and return to Metfield, United Kingdom.  However, at some point during the decision to abort the mission due to weather, Buster called visual loss of White Flight… one minute they were there and the next, they seemed to vanish into the clouds.  It’s never good to be separated, and so Buster called the flight center that informed him to turn to a general heading and to keep flying until out of the clouds.  Buster turned to the heading…

29 MARCH 2019

CW4 Momeny was spending another day at the office when the call came in, “Mr. Momeny,” said the voice over the phone, “it’s the CAC (Casualty Assistance Center), and we have a case for you.”

“Alright, I’ll be right in,” he said, fully knowing there was a typical short recall associated with such duty.  Initially, he was filled with the same sense of fear that everyone feels upon notification for Casualty Assistance Officer (CAO) duty, because while a tremendous honor to perform such duties, it is also known to be incredibly sensitive, if not downright taxing, as death is never an easy topic to discuss.  Then his initial fear turned to curiosity after what was said next.

“Don’t worry sir, this is a good assignment…it’s not typical…you’ll see when you get here” she explained.  And with that, the call was over.

At the CAC, CW4 Momeny was informed that he would be CAO on a repatriation case.  Repatriation means that a veteran from a previous war who was initially known to be missing in action, or MIA, has been found.  It turns out that this case was concerning the recovery and identification of a Second Lieutenant (2LT) Walter B. Stone, a P-47D Pilot who went missing in northern France during the earlier years of World War II. 

CW4 Momeny was informed that there was to be a meeting on 3 April to the family, a briefing of sorts, by a special member of the Human Resource Command (HRC) who worked specifically with the office of Past Conflict Repatriation Branch, or PCRB.  After inquiring as to the location of the meeting, he was informed that he would meet both the family and the HRC representative in Andalusia, Alabama.  While there he was to meet the PADD, or Person Authorized to Direct Disposition, of the returning Service member, who in this case happened to be 2LT Stone’s oldest living relative. 

The PADD was named Marcus Stone. 

Marcus is an energetic and intelligent man of 84 years and spends most days between Andalusia and Pensacola, Florida.  At 84, Marcus was approximately 8 years old the last time he had seen 2LT Stone, or as he was more affectionately known in the family, Uncle Buster. 

3 APRIL 2019

CW4 Momeny and the representative from HRC met up about an hour early in a small café in Andalusia.  Over coffee, the gentlemen discussed the broad scope and focus of the coming brief.  Within 3 hours, they were going to cover the details of the event that led to the loss of the Service member and all associated and supporting documents.  The details would then be laid out to the family concerning how 2LT Stone was located and identified. 

Finally, CW4 Momeny was instructed on how he was to brief the family concerning the awards of their fallen loved one.  With all items covered in detail, the two set off to meet the family.

Upon arrival, both the representative from HRC and CW4 Leonard Momeny were enthusiastically greeted by the family.  Marcus quickly made his way to CW4 Momeny, who was dressed in the distinctive Army Service Uniform, a requirement for specific functions of a Service member tending to CAO duties.  It was a prescient initial meeting to say the least, and now CW4 Momeny, an aviator and veteran, was about to assist a family in bringing another Army aviator and veteran home for good.

Once inside the local funeral home, it became apparent that Mr. Marcus Stone, nephew to Uncle Buster, was not the only one here for the brief … family and friends had traveled in from across the nation to learn about what had happened to the once missing family member.  It quickly became obvious to CW4 Momeny that the family ties in the Stone family ran deep and true.

THE BRIEF AND THE FAMILY

The fascinating brief provided by the special representative from HRC outlined the entire process, from 22 October 1943 until present, on how the Army categorized and later searched for 2LT Stone.  From the earliest recovery efforts during the 50s until the 90s, to a refined and corrected reinvestigation that would showcase the talents of an incredible archeological team from the University of Wisconsin, 2LT Stone’s countrymen and their dedication to his recovery was detailed in its entirety. 

Everything was fairly objective in its presentation, and all were fine until the question of how 2LT Stone was positively identified would arise.  That’s when it happened … accompanying a very detailed scientific explanation was Buster’s dog tag. 

Emotions began to well up in everyone, to include CW4 Momeny, who slowly moved his hand to the set of dog tags around his own neck.  The most basic symbol of service in the military…the piece of identification no member of the Navy, Army, Marine Corps, Air Force, and Coast Guard is ever without daily … the dog tag had just traversed space and time to bring a little bit of Buster back to the entire room.

To say that everyone in the room was agog over what had just been presented would be putting it lightly.  Accompanying the dog tag was a small neck chain, sixpence, and some buckles.  It all presented a very physical connection to a family member who had been missing for quite some time.  After all, Buster entered into service in the spring of 1943, and was only now, nearly 76 years later, returning to his native soil.  It was all very powerful.  As the family began to gather themselves, the stories flowed.  People reassured each other, hugged, clasped hands, and then began to talk of family.

THE TIE OF FAMILY & SOLDIER

For such a large group in attendance, most (save for Marcus) removed by distance from Buster in years, it initially struck CW4 Momeny as a bit odd that all felt so connected to the missing Service member.  However, as the discussion turned to Grandmother Stone…or ‘Mama Stone,’ it became obvious that the connection to service ran throughout the entire family. 

For you see, Grandmother Stone never gave up hope that one day her entire family would be home again. Grandmother Stone was a woman of strong faith and conviction, and I suppose that she had to be considering she had nine children to mother.  She was incredibly dedicated to not only her family but the local church, were she was a mainstay for decades. 

No matter how far family would venture out, as far as New England for the children of Buster’s brother, Albert Earl Stone, or how close they stayed to home, like granddaughter Nelda Godwin, Mama Stone’s confidante and daughter of Buster’s sister, Sarah Alice Stone Cassidy, the connecting line seemed to be the guiding love of a Soldier’s mother.

Family, even so many years later, was all encompassing and important to the Stones.  Additionally, it was more than obvious that they were incredibly proud of the difference their family made in one of the greatest struggles the world had ever known.

The stories flowed, and even Marcus who only briefly knew Buster as a boy of about 8 when he shipped off to Europe, recalled the ties of family through the memory of Grandmother Stone.  The strength of the family and their dedication to country was more than impressive.  Grandmother Stone had four boys serve during World War II, with two in the Philippines, one bomber crewmember / navigator, and one fighter pilot -- Buster, who was the only one not to come back. 

She even had a grandson, the oldest son of Jewell, Army Specialist 4 Jerry Michael Stone of the All-American 82nd Airborne Division, who served honorably in Vietnam and sadly, was killed in action.  Through all of it, there was always hope that Buster would return, especially from his mother.  However, it can also be said that there has obviously never been a question to the resolution and dedication to country by the members of the Stone family. 

In fact, when Buster’s niece, Kate Stone was only a child in the 1960s, her father Earl took a job in France.  It did not seem of much consequence to her at the time, and their entire family moved to establish a new life in Europe.  Earl never said much as to why he took the job in France, but Kate remembers weekend trips to the French countryside where her father was scouring the land for any sign of his missing brother’s plane. 

The family never forgets, and the briefed information about where Buster was found reminded Kate of that very point … as she was taken back to something that so clearly connected her to both her father and Grandmother Stone.  Neither the brother nor his children ever forgot about Buster.

The gap left by Buster was exceptional.  The news was devastating to his young wife, who waited 10 years before seeking to remarry.  The wife never forgot, and more powerfully than that, it was Grandmother Stone who gave her blessing on the young widow’s marriage. 

Grandmother Stone kept going, and time seemed irrelevant to her as she never moved on…telling everyone that Buster would one day come home.  Even Marcus recalled all these years later, that the last thing she said to him was that, “Buster would come home.”  The mother never forgot, and because of that, no one did… none of Buster’s siblings, or their children, or their grandchildren.  No one.

IN CLOSING

So why tell this story?  Simple.  The bravest that this nation has to offer are never alone.  When they leave to fight and win the nation’s wars, they take with them the hopes of that nation, and more specifically, the hearts and thoughts of a family.  That deep commitment to our nation and therefore, each other, is at the very essence of America’s great moral compass and fabric. 

There are still over 82,000 missing from wars such as World War II and the Korean War, but our nation keeps looking and tirelessly working to identify those who are found.  As demonstrated in the Stone family situation, there is no amount of time that will dispel either the love or pride of family. 

Thank goodness for that, and thank heaven for American families like the Stones.  This is so much more than just a particular tale that bridges both spirit and history; this is something that ties us all together as Americans, Service members, and family members. 

Our prisoners of war and MIA are gone, but certainly not forgotten.  We should make it our solemn oath as a nation to never forget all that they and the families who sent them off to service have sacrificed upon the altar of freedom, for they are our better angels.

On 9 May 2019

2LT Walter B. Stone will make one last flight from an Air Force Base in Nebraska to Pensacola, Florida.  Upon arrival, he will be met by family and a team from the Fort Rucker CAC and Honors Detachment.  They will follow the long drive home to Andalusia, back to his family, and where his journey began so many years ago.

On 11 May 2019, and just a few days after what would be his 100th birthday, 2LT Stone—Buster—(was)  finally laid to rest among the family and mother who loved him so dearly.  What follows is a letter that Buster wrote to his mother, Grandmother Stone, on Mother’s Day.  What a fitting ending and tribute to the woman who always knew her Soldier would come home.

May, 1940

Dear Mom,

If I were a poet, I’d write a poem which would be worthy of a mother on Mother’s Day.  Or if I were rich, I’d buy a present which would be worthy.  But being neither a poet, nor rich, I send you only a few lines which I sincerely hope will make your day a brighter and more cheerful day for you.

After all, neither words, no matter how arranged, nor gifts, no matter how costly, can pay the debt which every son owes his mother, especially when he is fortunate enough to have a mother like mine.  So we must not set aside one day in every year in honor of Mother, but must try to make every day a Mother’s Day.  You are and always will remain my best girl.

Your son,

Buster.

* * *

The author of Lt. Stone’s Long Flight Home” is CW4 Leonard Momeny, who currently serves as a Doctrine Writer and Tactics Analyst with the Directorate of Training and Doctrine, Fort Rucker, Alabama. Prior assignments include Fort Drum, Fort Riley, Fort Rucker, Fort Lewis, and Army Europe. He holds degrees from Southwestern College Kansas, Liberty University, and American Military University, and is a graduate of Ranger School.

* * *

ON MEMORIAL DAY THIS YEAR, Navy Seaman Edgar Gross, who died aboard the USS Oklahoma with 429 other sailors, will be buried with highest honors in Athens, Ala. His remains, which were found after 78 years spent in a grave marked “Unknown” in Hawaii, will be placed reverently on a military Caisson and six horses will pull him to a small family cemetery. He will also join his family and a large contingent of officials and military veterans will walk behind the Caisson in his honor. His family, the people of the United States Navy and the United State proper, would be grateful for your presence. Memorial Day is traditionally held on the last Monday in May, which this year falls on May 27.

royexum@aol.com

Walter "Buster" Stone
Walter "Buster" Stone

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