Forgotten NC soldiers are focus of 100th anniversary of World War I

It took eight agonizing years before James Floyd Staton’s mother finally learned what became of her son in World War I.

The Marshville Marine was killed in action in 1918. Shortly before Christmas 1926, a War Department telegram informed her that his grave had been located at an American cemetery in France.

After that time, Staton and his sacrifice faded into obscurity. When Union County erected a marker in 1996 to 35 local men who died in the conflict, he and another soldier, Roy Perry, were inadvertently left off.

But they finally may receive long-overdue recognition, just as the nation and world begin to commemorate a war that began 100 years ago this week.

Patricia Poland, a Union County local history librarian, has been researching the men on the marker for several years, with the aid of volunteers and a co-worker. “By serendipity,” she encountered Perry and Staton’s stories over the past year.

On Monday, Poland will deliver the findings to county commissioners and request they add Staton and Perry’s names to the marker.

“They slipped through the cracks and nobody remembers their service,” Poland said. “That’s just sad.”

N.C. in WWI

Because there are no longer any living U.S. World War I veterans, the war is not nearly as well-known as more recent conflicts.

LeRae Umfleet wants to help change that. She heads the World War I Centennial Committee for the state Department of Cultural Resources.

The group is launching four years of observances on Saturday with a wreath-laying ceremony at the state Capitol. It’s timed to the start of the war in Europe and the departure of the first Tar Heels to fight with the French Foreign Legion.

On June 28, 1914, the assassination of Austria’s archduke and his wife in Sarajevo, Bosnia, set off a chain of events that led to Austria-Hungary declaring war on Serbia on July 28. Other nations soon joined the conflict.

The United States entered the war in April 1917 and remained until fighting ended in November 1918.

More than 16 million people, military and civilians, perished worldwide. The “War to End All Wars” helped usher in the modern era by undermining European aristocracy, shifting national borders and industrializing warfare, said Kevin Cherry, director of North Carolina’s Office of Archives and History.

All corners of the state contributed to the war effort, from a west Charlotte boot camp called Camp Greene to wagon wheel manufacturing in Hickory and artillery shell production in Raleigh. North Carolina became less rural and more industrialized, Cherry said. Women and African-Americans looked to improve their status in society while also serving their country.

The fighting took a heavy toll.

More than 86,000 people from North Carolina served, Umfleet said. Of those, at least 2,370 were killed in action or died from the virulent Spanish flu, part of more than 116,000 military deaths nationwide.

The vast majority of casualties were in the Army. Every North Carolina county suffered losses, a 1920s state report found, led by Wake and Mecklenburg at 69 and 67 deaths, respectively. Totals do not reflect those who fought before the U.S. officially entered the war.

Umfleet hopes that work by the state, and people such as Poland, will inspire others to investigate their family histories and share what they learn. “It puts a face on statistics,” Umfleet said.

The men on the marker

On Memorial Day weekend 1996, Union County commissioners unveiled their 2,500-pound granite monument to World War I soldiers. It joined markers for other conflicts at the Old County Courthouse in downtown Monroe.

Commissioner Richard Helms said he is eager to review Poland’s work. If everything pans out, he will request that the two names be added, saying, “It’s the least we can do.”

One of the men on the marker is Melvin Deese, a Monroe farmer. The 28-year-old Army private died on Aug. 14, 1918, from wounds received after a German shell struck an ammunition truck he was helping unload in France.

His great-niece, Durham resident Beverly Reece, welcomed the idea of Perry and Staton on the marker.

“They gave the same sacrifice as the others did,” she said, “and that sacrifice should never be forgotten. It definitely needs to be done.”

Perry and Staton

On the morning of Aug. 9, 1919, nearly a year after the fighting ended, Sgt. Roy Perry died in an Army hospital bed in Asheville.

The 23-year-old Monroe railroad laborer and Lancaster, S.C., native succumbed to the effects of gassing while serving in France, apparently the first from the county to die that way. He was buried in Monroe.

Perry would be the second African-American on the marker; the other is Henry Ward Crowell. Little else is known of Perry’s service. Like Staton, Perry was single and left no immediate descendants.

Staton was one of six children. His friends called him “Floyd.”

He died on July 19, 1918, in a battle on the Western Front in France known as the Aisne-Marne Offensive, a key Allied victory. Staton was just 18 years old.

He received a posthumous commendation from the French government, records show, and was buried in Oise-Aisne American Cemetery north of Paris, alongside 6,011 other American graves.

In 1930, four years after receiving the telegram about her son, Staton’s mom joined other mothers and widows from the Charlotte area on a pilgrimage to the French cemetery.

Staton’s great-niece, Pamela Hutchens, recalled hearing that story over the years. Hutchens, a judge in Virginia Beach, Va., praised Poland’s research and called it wonderful that Staton’s name might go on the marker.

“It’s nice to correct something like that,” Hutchens said.

She said her great-uncle’s story showed how a global war affected individual families “and how much our country gave to that conflict.”

Poland agreed.

“It’s important we try our best to remember all who served our country.” she said. “I don’t like people to be forgotten.”

Observer researcher Maria David and database editor Gavin Off contributed.

Related stories from Charlotte Observer