Death of a Marine: Billy’s story, part one

Published 12:23 am Sunday, March 22, 2009

Approximately 600,000 Americans gave their lives during World War II. Each of them had mothers, fathers, and other people who loved them and mourned their loss. Such was the case with a young Picayune native named Charles Wilmon “Billy” Stuart Jr. — one of five Picayune sons that would pay the ultimate sacrifice during that time. He was a Marine who landed with the invasion force of Iwo on February 19, 1945 and died on that small volcanic island half a world away on March 7, 1945.

On March 7 of this year, 64 years after his death, a special monument dedication commemorating the life of Billy Stuart took place at Pine Grove Baptist Church Cemetery — a dedication finally realized after many years in the making.

As a child in the fourth grade at South Side Elementary my cousin Brent Seal and I would sit out under a huge Live Oak tree at recess telling tall tales to our classmates of a larger than life “uncle” who had been killed in the war. A hero uncle who had jumped from foxhole to foxhole killing “Japs” in hand-to-hand combat before finally being over powered by the enemy and killed. Even I was impressed and sat wild-eyed while picturing myself there beside “Uncle Billy” as Brent gave all the details. When the bell rang I would ask Brent who we were talking about to which he would reply, “I’m not sure, I’ll have to ask my dad!”

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It would be 20 years later that this mysterious uncle would finally have a name and a story. In 1991, while serving on the Brick-By-Brick Committee, a committee organized to oversee the building of a Veteran’s Memorial in Picayune, my curiosity was rekindled when a list of Pearl River County veterans killed in action was circulated around the table. There on the page was the name Charles Wilmon “Billy” Stuart Jr. I asked my mother about it and she referred me to her Stuart cousin Leroy “Sparky” Penton.

I eagerly contacted Cousin Sparky and we discussed what he knew of Billy Stuart and his untimely death. We also discussed placing a white marble military headstone at his gravesite in Pine Grove Cemetery but it never transpired.

In 2007, my mother called me at my home in Philadelphia to say that Cousin Sparky had passed away. At that moment all the conversations we’d had about Billy Stuart flooded my memory. It was at that moment I was determined to follow through with our plans to place a headstone on Billy’s grave.

The first step was to obtain Billy’s official military records from the United States Marine Corps. I sat down one evening and wrote a request explaining what I knew of him and the date he had been killed. Several weeks later I received a standard Government form letter in response stating that they could not release Pfc. Charles W. Stuart’s records without his permission. Again, I wrote explaining to them that he was D-E-A-D (DEAD) and would not be able to release his records. This exchange went back and forth until out of frustration I contacted the Hattiesburg office of Congressman Gene Taylor. Surprisingly within a week I received a more personable letter stating that if I would send $50 they would release Billy’s records.

Another few weeks passed before I would receive a large brown envelope in the mail. Like a kid in a candy store I raced in the house and tore into the packet. There I found the elusive Pfc. Charles Wilmon Stuart, Jr. Every document he had signed, and any other type of document, mapping out his short military career was in there. I sat for hours digesting each page, each bit of his story. I even saw a copy of the telegram sent to Aunt Gussie on Thursday, March 29, 1945 notifying her of her son’s death. Emotions flooded my body as I imagined her opening the door and receiving such news. Then I flipped the page again and saw a document dated December 5, 1943. It was a Southern Railroad passenger itinerary and manifest with three names on it: Private Charles W. Stuart Jr., Private Fred E. Henley and Private Grady V. Evans. All three were ordered to depart Poplarville on Sunday, December 5, 1943 for Marine Corps Boot Camp at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego, Calif.

I picked up the phone and contacted Fred Henley, who still resides locally, and asked him if he remembered Billy Stuart. He laughed and began bringing Billy’s story to life.

To be continued… look for part two of Death of a Marine: Billy’s story in “Call to Arms” on April 5.

Lieutenant Colonel Lourie N. Formby III is a native of Picayune and currently serves as the Personnel Officer for the 184th Sustainment Brigade in Laurel