Much about Walter Murray Stone is a mystery. He was a smallish but stern man who was easily riled. He was born in Oliver Springs, a small town about 25 miles west of Knoxville in east Tennessee in 1897. He had an older brother Richard who lived in Oliver Springs and a younger sister Jean who lived in Ohio. His father was William E. Stone; his mother was Mary Ann Francis. Except for the above meager information, nothing else is known about his parents or his siblings for he was never heard to speak a single word about them.
Actually this is not a totally accurate statement for one fact is known about his brother. Richard and a friend were killed by a train under mysterious circumstances as they stood talking one morning on the railroad tracks in Oliver Springs. They failed to respond to the sounds of the approaching train until it was too late. No one knows why.
In 1923, Walter met, under unknown circumstances, and married Mary Almeda Caldwell, a kindhearted and thoroughly religious woman, also from Oliver Springs and from a fairly well-off and educated family. Three of her six siblings became secondary school teachers. Her father Johnce Cranston Caldwell owned substantial acreage in the small community of Galloway and was highly respected in the area.
It would be hard to find a husband or wife with less in common. Most people from her church and her family considered their marriage to be a poor match, and Walter made little effort to interact with his wife’s family even though they lived close by in Galloway. Mary was as calm and patient as he was harsh and unsocial. She was as trusting as he was suspicious. The Caldwells were strong supporters of the small Galloway Baptist Church and her faith was simple but unwavering; he, on the other hand, rarely went to church with her and showed little interest in matters of religion. He was also given to bouts of drinking with his brother Richard.
Most people agreed that Walter was hard to get to know. He was socially awkward and tended to regale those he met with stories about something he had done better than someone else while making little effort to get to know his listener. He was never heard to pay a compliment to anyone, even his long suffering wife. Once when Mary tried on a new shade of red lipstick, Walter declared that her mouth reminded him of the ass end of a blue jay that had been eating poke berries. He had not completed high school and was not a proficient reader; that fact may have contributed to his suspicious nature.
Walter and Mary lived in a modest two-bedroom frame house, where they raised two rather handsome sons: Kenneth Walter, born in 1924, and Louis Stanley, born in 1927. In spite of their father’s influence, both boys were good hearted with a generous nature, but Kenneth was level-headed and responsible while Louis tended toward exaggeration and enjoyed being the center of attention as well as displaying some of the social awkwardness of his father.
Walter was a hard worker who expected his sons to work as hard as he did. He worked as a mechanic at a local hosiery mill and also raised most of the family’s food on their small farm by keeping a garden and raising chickens. Mary canned a lot of the vegetables from their garden and they drew their water from a spring. There were always chores to be done and when the boys failed to meet his expectations, he didn’t hesitate to use his blacksnake whip on them. He had a mule named “Dolly” that he used to plow his garden and he beat his boys mercilessly just like he did Dolly.
World War II was raging across Europe in 1943, when Kenneth was 19. One day when his father was using Dolly to plow some new ground, Kenneth couldn’t bear the cruel way his father continued beating Dolly, even after she collapsed. The ground was hard and Dolly was old so Kenneth pleaded with his father to stop; instead his father started beating him. But Kenneth was an adult and it was the last straw. He grabbed his father by the wrist and swore, “That’s the last damn time you’re ever going to beat me!” The next day he joined the Army. It was the last time his parents ever saw their son alive.
Kenneth was inducted into the Army just across the state line in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. He received orders to report to Camp Wheeler, Georgia for training and upon completion of his training he was assigned to the 29th Infantry Division in Europe.
His father was so furious that Kenneth had stood up to him that he refused to correspond with his son. His mother was broken hearted that her husband and son were estranged. Kenneth wrote to her as often as he could, but he never wrote to his father.
In September of 1944, Mary received the following letter from Tennessee’s Congressman in Washington.
Dear Mrs. Stone:
I am advised by the War Department that your son, Pfc Kenneth W. Stone, is reported missing in action. I wish to express to you my deepest sympathy and the hope that you may later learn that your son is safe.
I want you to feel free to call upon me to render any assistance within my power here in Washington.
John Jennings, Jr.
That news caused her many sleepless nights and prompted a torrent of tears and prayers. But Mary’s prayers were not answered. In October of 1944, she received a posthumous citation from 29th Infantry Headquarters awarding her son the Bronze Star medal:
PFC Kenneth W Stone, 116 Infantry, U S Army, for meritorious achievement in military operations against the enemy in Normandy, France. On 8 June 1944 Pfc Stone, Automatic Rifleman, excelled in the performance of duty during the early stages of the Normandy beachhead. Displaying courage and aggressiveness. He provided effective covering fire for the advancing troops until killed by enemy machine gun fire. Pfc Stone’s unselfish devotion to duty reflect great credit upon himself and the Military Service.
The following months were difficult for Mary as she grieved over the loss of her son—and for Louis who idolized his brother. Six months later, Mary received the letter: her son was coming home.
Kenneth was coming home—in a casket to be buried and mourned by his small family. He never had a chance to have a wife or children to remember him. His nephews and niece would never know him. His father, his mother and his brother never mentioned him—remembering was too painful. He was a good son, a good brother, and a good man who made the ultimate sacrifice for his country and too soon would be forgotten. But he was coming home.
In 1945, Louis made up his mind. He would turn 18 in July; he would join the Navy. After completing his initial training, Louis received orders to report to the USS Logan, a new attack transport ship docked in Seattle. But his tenure in the Navy was short. After the Logan had served several months in the Pacific, the Japanese surrendered on September 2, 1945. The mission of the ship changed to ferrying troops from the west coast to Japan for the occupation and returning veteran troops to the US.
Coming under tremendous pressure to bring the troops home, Congress promised that all servicemen eligible for demobilization from the Pacific would be in the U.S. by June 1946. Soon local newspapers informed the public that many thousands of discharged soldiers and sailors were flooding into major cities like Birmingham, Memphis and Cincinnati on their way home.
It was joyful news for married women who had been left behind while their husbands went off to fight in the war and for young single women who had come of age during the war and suffered through a prolonged scarcity of eligible men to marry. By the same token, the war had deprived so many men of female companionship that when the two irresistible forces finally came together, it was like a colossal pressure cooker exploding.
After the USS Logan’s duties were completed, the ship returned to San Francisco in early February, 1946, and Louis was discharged from active duty on February 12. Two days later, he started the long train ride that would take him through Cincinnati back to his home in eastern Tennessee.
Mary’s son was coming home.