HEADED HOME: Service planned for WWII pilot shot down in France

Published 12:00 am Saturday, May 4, 2019

Mark Stone said his family is overwhelmed by the respect being shown his great-uncle as the Army prepares to bring the WWII pilot’s recently-identified remains to Alabama for a proper burial in the family plot in Pleasant Home.

2nd Lt. Walter B. Stone – “Buster” to his family – was 24 when he died on Oct. 22, 1943, when his P-47 Thunderbolt aircraft crashed in northern France during a bomber escort mission. Because France was enemy-occupied territory at the time of the crash, search and recovery operations were not possible. 

Walter Stone was the son of James W. Stone Sr. and Lilla Hughes Stone. He was one of nine siblings, and one of four brothers who saw active duty in WWII.

Mark Stone’s father is the soldier’s oldest living relative.

“He and his dad drove (Lt. Stone) to the Air Base on the other side of Tallahassee, dropped him off, and he left the next day for England. They were the last members of the family to see him.

Last fall, Mark Stone’s father was contacted about submitting a DNA sample to help identify Lt. Stone’s remains. He said his father, who is 84, wouldn’t let himself get excited about the prospect of a positive identification.

Earlier this year, he was notified that Lt. Stone’s remains had been identified.

In 1990, a French excavation group, called Association Maurice Choron (AMC,) carried out a limited excavation of the site in the forest near La Wattine, France, where Stone was believed to have crashed.  Aircraft wreckage that matched Stone’s aircraft was located and a field investigation was recommended.

In April and May 2017, a DPAA Recovery Team (Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency) excavated a site based on information from a local resident.  During the excavation, an identification tag for Stone was located, as well as remains. The remains were sent to the laboratory for identification.

In 2018, in a contract with the University of Wisconsin, the site excavation was completed, with additional remains consolidated with the previously located remains. To identify Stone’s remains, scientists from DPAA used circumstantial and material evidence.

Mark Stone said the story became very real when family members met with a representative of the military who brought Lt. Stone’s military identification.

“When the dog tags hit the table, it got real for all of us in the family,” he said. ‘They had his dog tags, the chain it was on, and buckles. They found a machine gun, and used the serial numbers to match what was in his plane.”

The remaining family members have learned much about their uncle since his remains were identified. Mark Stone said the military declassified information related to his crash, and provided the family with a book with that included photographs of the crash site, an eyewitness’s account of the crash, and a copy of the letter the Army sent to his wife, Miriam, declaring him missing. Miriam Stone did not remarry for 10 years in hopes her husband would be found alive.

Mark Stone said that at that meeting, he met cousins from the Boston area he’d never met.

“Uncle Earl was one of the brothers that served in World War II,” he said. “After the war, he took a job in France. His daughter Kate, who I actually met for the first time, was old enough to remember Uncle Earl going on excursions when they lived in France. She never understood what he was doing. Now she realizes he was looking for his brother’s lost plane. It’s testimony that the family never gave up.”

Lt. Stone’s mother, Lilla Hughes Stone, also never gave up hope that her son’s remains would come home.

Mrs. Stone suffered other tragic losses before and after Lt. Stone’s death. In 1941, her 17-year-old daughter, Lilla, died of tuberculosis. Buster Stone was shot down in October of 1943. Five years laster, Staff Sgt. James W. Stone Jr., “Bill” to his family, died trying to rescue his fiancée and her sister on the eve of his wedding. He saved the sister, but both he and his fiancée drowned. Just four years later, Lilla Stone’s husband, who was 20 years her senior and 86 at the time, died when he was struck by a car. Another son, Eugene, died at age 47 of pneumonia. A grandson was killed in Vietnam.

Mark Stone said his great-grandmother’s faith remained strong throughout the trials of her life.

“She is an example of exactly how we are supposed to lean on God to get through tough times,” Stone said.

A service will full military honors is planned for 11 a.m. on Sat., May 11, at Pleasant Home Baptist Church. Lt. Stone’s remains will be laid to rest in the family plot, where his mother placed a memorial to him.  It reads, “In memory of Lt. Walter B. Stone, pilot of P-47 Thunderbolt, 350 Fighter Sqdn., 353 Fighter Gropu, May 8, 1919, Reported missing over N.W. France, Oct. 22, 1943.”

“The Stone family’s story is the story of thousands of families in America,” Mark Stone said. “My great-grandmother’s story is the same as thousands and thousands across our country.

Of the 16 million Americans who served in World War II, more than 400,000 died during the war.  Currently there are 72,731 service members (approximately 26,000 are assessed as possibly-recoverable) still unaccounted for from World War II.  Stone’s name is recorded on the Tablets of the Missing at the Ardennes American Cemetery, an American Battle Monuments Commission site in Neupré, Belgium, along with the others missing from WWII. A rosette will be placed next to his name to indicate he has been accounted for.