by James Carl Nelson
Adapted from the Remains of Company D: A Story of the Great War
(St. Martin’s Press, 2009. Used with Permission)
Introduction: Few authors have researched participants of the Great War so well and have written so eloquently about their experiences as Mr. Nelson. The webmaster wishes that the lives of each individual soldier on both sides of this terrible conflict could be so well documented! Mr. Nelson’s book is essentially an effort to learn more about the war-time experiences of his Grandfather, John Nelson; but he skillfully brings to life the other members of Co. D, 28th Inf. Regt., 1st Division, AEF as well. What caught the webmaster’s attention about the Marvin Stainton story was the family’s efforts to find the closure after the war: His brother, Sam, returned to Hill 263 in the Meuse-Argonne in 1919 to search for Marvin’s grave; and he was heart-broken when he was unable to find this closure. “I did every thing that was in my power to do Mamma and I don’t know what I would go thru to know his body is not lost to us forever” he would write in a letter to his mother. (p. 297.) Many thanks to Jim for sharing this story with the readers, who might wish to buy the book after this brief intro!
He had wanted this, he had asked for this; Hell, Marvin Everett Stainton had begged for it, and by October 9th, 1918 Marvin was well on with his war, awaking from a cold and fitful sleep and stumbling through the gloom of a heavy fog to a large shell hole, where a small group of Company D’s noncoms and officers sat waiting — all “joking and of good humor… waiting for zero hour to go over after them,” Sgt. Lynn Barnes would remember — to begin one more day of war, one more day of hunting Germans in yet another place they called Death Valley, all while ducking and dodging the blind barrages and fusillades that whooshed from the artillery emplacements on Hills 272 and 263, amid the wails of the unseen wounded and the chugging pup-pup-pup of the machine guns that created their own wall of sound, all merging into a resounding echo of violence that careened across the valley floor like the waters of a flash flood.
A long way from Cantigny, a long way from Soissons, the men of Company D, 28th Infantry Regiment, U.S. First Division ’s awoke that morning to follow a new leader, a kid who just a few months before kept a picture of Jesus on his wall but who had now become one of them, muddy and wasted and gritty and mean, and if not the actual source a kindred spirit to a “kid lieutenant” the correspondent Frederick Palmer had found in those woods below those hills, and who had told Palmer:
“This is a mean, nasty war, but it is the only war we have had or most of us ever want, and we will have to put up with it and fight the boche in the meanest, nastiest way possible, if that is the way to lick the mean, nasty boche.”
“This,” Palmer would add, “was certainly not a sophomoric view of war, and it was characteristic of an officer of the 1st Division.”
And it was as a company commander that Marvin took his place that morning, and it was at 8:52 a.m. that Lt. Marvin Stainton led Company D’s men from their places near Arietal Farm towards Death Valley, stringing out into the woods to fight singly and in small groups, any meaningful contact between units lost amid the brambles and stands of trees and slicing ravines fortified with German bunkers and machine-gun nests; and it was at 8:52 a.m. that Marvin Stainton marched off to war for the second time, towards that hill and whatever destiny might await him there among those dripping trees, and in that thick fog that clung to the ground like suffocating down.
For three days following the taking of Hill 240, the company had clung to its position just a few hundred yards to the northeast in the vicinity of a natural spring called St. Germaine, digging in just northeast of the eminence at any handy spot that offered protection from the artillery and constant machine-gun fire coming from the northwest, north, and northeast.
Patrols were sent out in an effort to keep contact with the enemy and probe for weaknesses on Hill 272 and Hill 263, creeping through barbed wire entanglements that choked the Petit Bois, each man constantly on alert for the sudden burst of an unseen Maxim from the front or rear, or the whine of an incoming round that would shatter the very tree tops and send shards of hot metal and wood in one hundred different, and dangerous, directions.
Hill 272 had remained a menace, its guns continuing their constant bombardment of the 28th and 26th Regiments’ lines below, and on October 6th the third battalion of the 26th Regiment was given permission to assault the hill. “Enemy activity on Hill 272,” Capt. Lyman Frasier would write, “indicated that he was feverishly strengthening his positions there. The 3rd battalion commander felt that if he had to take the hill he better take it now.”
The battalion set out, its aim to send two companies across Death Valley — southwest of Hill 263 and east of Hill 272 — and roll up the German left flank on the hill. The 28th Regiment’s second battalion, in the front lines north of Hill 240, would contribute suppressing fire “until the attacking troops should appear on the hill,” Frasier wrote.
The 7th Field Artillery as well was to lay strong fire on Hill 272 until friendly soldiers could be seen on its crest. A strong patrol also would cover the assault’s right flank from its position south of Hill 263. At 2 p.m., the 26th went over the top, and “all went well for a time,” Frasier wrote. Amid clouds of smoke and dust, the assaulting companies reached the German positions on Hill 272 “and drove him from his position on that part of the defense.”
However, at 3 p.m. the situation changed. A German counter-attack from the vicinity of Hill 269 — Frasier estimated its strength as being that of a full regiment — quickly drove in the company protecting the right flank. Seeing Germans in their rear, half the troops on Hill 272 broke and ran as well, about forty of them subsequently being stopped and steadied with the help of several old-line noncoms.
Two machine gunners supporting the 26th’s advance on Hill 272 went to work on the Germans, who brought up another company to clear the Petit Bois on the 26th’s right flank. Frasier, hustling to the area to arrest the retreat of his assaulting and supporting forces, gathered up forty men and quickly ordered a counter-attack:
“They outnumbered us three to one. We had no support. We had no line of retreat. We had to attack them. This was done, the men firing from the shoulder and advancing very rapidly. The interval between the men was wide and produced the desired effect of deception and surprise upon the Germans. They fled in some confusion straight into the fire of the two machine guns… The casualties in the enemy ranks were very heavy.”
The artillery went to work on this force as well, shelling the woods and causing 800 casualties among the Germans. The counter-attack had been broken, but it had achieved one of its aims; the 26th’s assault on Hill 272 was called off. The third battalion had also suffered enormous casualties: “The strength of the battalion that night was three officers and one hundred and eighty-two men,” Frasier wrote.
The lines would remain as they had been, the 16th Regiment holding its own but unable to advance on Fleville; the 18th Regiment in the woods north of the Montrefagne, taking fire from Hill 176 to the northwest and the slopes of Hill 272 to its north; the 28th Regiment dug in to the northeast of Hill 240, and the 26th Regiment at Arietal Farm, its right flank refused to guard against German infiltration from the Bois de Moncy in front of Hill 269.
Conditions were horrendous, as the First’s men huddled in their shallow funk holes while the Germans sent over a continuous bombardment of shot, shell, and gas from the heights above. Company D’s Pvt. James “Slim” Jones remembered:
“I ain’t got much religion, neighbor, but as I was laying in the shell holes with the machine guns and cannon balls roaring around, I’ve often said well, sir, here I am alone with God, and I sure put my trust in him.”
Neither food nor water could be brought up through the maelstrom, and decaying corpses littered the ground, as burial parties had been suspended as far back of the lines as Montrebeau Wood. “There was no such thing as breakfast to be had, no water to drink, nothing to do but crouch there in our hole and wait,” the 18th’s Pvt. Alvord Kemp would write.
“The men dug, as best they could, shallow holes for protection,” the First’s history says. “In these they lay under a downpour of shells, gas and bullets. Frequently, the Montrefagne looked like a veritable volcano. For hours at a time the smoke from bursting shell in the Exermont ravine, and in the depressions north of it, resembled forest fires. Every valley was drenched with gas… By night, the crackle of machine guns, the bursting of shell and the flare of signal rockets were confusing and awe-inspiring.”
“For two days and two nights,” Company C’s Charles Butler would remember, the men of the 28th’s first battalion lay “in thin lines lay dug in along the Romagne Road. Boche airplanes purred overheard constantly, as they tried to search out the hiding places of the Yankee infantry, and to detect the artillery emplacements of the Yankee field pieces. Whenever a Hun observation plane swooped low over the lines… the order would be passed along the entire position: ‘Keep down, don’t move, and keep under cover!’ ”
The 18th Regiment’s Alvord Kemp would learn the hard way what ingesting mustard gas could do to a man’s insides. On October 6th, his company was elated when a chow party finally made it through with beans and coffee and bread. “Well, we ate and were sick, the whole of us,” he wrote.
Unknown to the men, the carrying party had been shelled with gas and ditched their food cans, “and then when it was over they came back and got the chow and brought it up.” The mustard gas had permeated the food and drink. That night, Kemp wrote, the men were too sick to sleep. “If the Jerrys had known it they could have gobbled us up like ginger bread men, but they didn’t,” he wrote.
As the heavy guns on the heights on the heights above the west bank of the Aire continued to take their toll, and as the First’s Doughboys burrowed further and further into the ground, Pershing fretted, his humiliation over the plight of the First only made worse by the well-publicized suffering of the famous “Lost Battalion” of the 77th Division, whose situation several kilometers to the southwest of the First Division was dire — and becoming worse by the hour.
Under command of Major Charles Whittlesey, the first battalion of the 308th Regiment had been advancing since the original jump-off of September 26th through the rugged Argonne. On October 2nd, Whittlesey’s 700 men had moved ahead of its flanks through several heavily forested ravines while facing light opposition — only to find themselves encircled by Germans the following morning.
By the evening of October 6th, Whittlesey’s group had fought off numerous German counter-attacks, plus costly barrages placed in its midst by misguided Allied artillery, and were out of food and medical supplies, its numbers dwindling by the hour. That evening, Whittlesey rebuffed an entreaty to surrender that arrived in the clutches of one of his men who had been captured earlier that day, and told his surviving troops to get ready for another counter-attack.
Whittlesey’s plight preoccupied Pershing’s staff even as it sought a way to overcome the standoff in the First’s theater, but a proposed solution to the situations facing both the First and Whittlesey’s Lost Battalion was offered by First Corps Commander Hunter Liggett; who proposed sending a brigade from the untested 82nd Division across the Aire below the tiny village of Chatel-Chehery, which the 28th Division had been unable to reach, then pivot to the north and attack the series of hills — 180, 223, 244 — from which the Germans had punished the First Division and, especially, its 16th Regiment near Fleville.
Over the objections of some on Pershing’s staff who felt the move was too risky, the 164th brigade was moved up along the traffic-choked roads which supplied the 28th and First Divisions. At dawn on October 7th, under-strength elements of the 327th and 328th Regiments crossed the Aire, their right “in the air” and exposed to the German artillery to the north, and quickly seized Hill 180. The 28th Division advanced on its left, and together with the 327th managed to take Chatel-Chehery and move to the heights beyond.
Though they were held up before a strong German position at the town of Cornay, the move threatened to outflank the German force that had encircled Whittlesey and his men. By October 8th, the Boche began to withdraw; on the same day the pitiful survivors of the Lost Battalion — just 231 out of the 700 men who’d originally been trapped with Whittlesey — walked out of their formerly forlorn position in the woods several miles southwest of Chatel-Chehery.
It was also on October 8th that Pvt. Alvin C. York of the 328th Regiment’s second battalion would perform what is beyond doubt the most legendary of Doughboy deeds, killing somewhere around twenty-eight Germans and capturing thirty-five machine guns and 132 prisoners near Hill 223 — just a few miles to the west of where the First Division continued to hold its positions and vainly probe for openings among the German positions that ringed them in those hills above Exermont.
As Whittlesey was being rescued and Alvin York was capturing what seemed to be “the whole German army,” the 26th Regiment’s Lyman Frasier was being ordered to make another push against Hill 272. Frasier led his battalion over the top at 5 a.m., leaving a gap between the 28th Regiment and the attacking battalion of the 26th, but, Frasier would write, “It was felt that the 28th Infantry could take care of this in addition to its own sector.”
Frasier’s force soon ran into machine-gun positions on the hill’s lower slopes, each protected by fifteen riflemen. “These were gradually reduced but at the expense of time and at the expense of men,” he wrote. But just as Frasier’s men reached the eastern crest of Hill 272, Germans were seen approaching on their right flank — as they had two days before.
As well, a force of Boche was seen advancing towards them from the northwest; Frasier decided the best course was to retreat, reasoning that “If the enemy should succeed in eliminating us from the fight it would be an easy matter to roll up the flank of the 28th Infantry and possibly the entire division.” Frasier’s force “retreated by leaps and bounds, keeping our right flank constantly refused.”
For the rest of that bleak day, the First’s artillery poured high explosives onto Hill 272, the Germans responding in kind with heavy concentrations of gas. To Frasier, the heavy American fire indicated “that some new move” as yet unknown to him was to be made.
In the evening, Frasier and the First’s other battalion and regimental commanders were indeed apprised of a new plan, set to begin the next morning: The 16th Regiment’s First battalion, held in reserve until now, would be inserted into the 28th Regiment’s lines north of Hill 240 and attack northwest at dawn with the aim of capturing Hill 272. Frasier was told he would be relieved from his position at Arietal Farm by Company D and the 28th’s first battalion, and slide to his right and into the eastern edge of the Bois de Moncy.
On Frasier’s right, the first battalion of the first engineers, which late on October 7th relieved a detachment of the 32nd Division atop Hill 269 and on the next day attacked and gained the crest, was to pivot west and clear the Bois de Moncy, while the 361st Regiment of the 91st Division — now attached to the First — would guard the engineers’ right flank.
On the left, the remaining battalions of the 16th and 18th Regiments would attack north, to keep pressure on the German right flank. The 28th and 26th Regiments were to shift their direction of assault slightly, turning from their positions facing northwest to follow Death Valley’s north-northeasterly course towards Hills 263, with the right of the 26th also sweeping the lower reaches of Hill 269.
Company D and the first battalion would lead the 28th’s assault due north towards Hill 263 on the morning of October 9th, with the third battalion in support; each move would be made in stages, with the division’s artillery leading each individual battalion’s advance with a rolling barrage, shifting ranges and directions on a prearranged schedule.
The objective, as always, remained the crests of those hills which had continued to rain death on the Doughboys over the previous nine days, as well as the smaller heights of the Cote de Maldah and the dark woods of the Bois de Romagne, which dribbled out into open country north of the Romagne Heights, pointing the way to Germany itself.
By midnight, the 28th’s first battalion had relieved the 26th Regiment at Arietal Farm. Shortly thereafter, Company C’s Lt. Charles Butler was rousted from his foxhole and told to report to the 28th Regiment’s command post, where he was instructed to guide John Church and two runners to the first battalion’s front line to ensure its two companies were in liaison with each other — no mean feat in the midnight-black, shell-hole pocked, wire-tangled woods of the Petit Bois.
Charles Butler wrote of his journey back to the battalion:
“The heavy shelling of the day had left the familiar smell of poisonous gases, while the dank air was laden with the odor of high explosives. Above the screech of an occasional shell could be heard the moans and cries of numerous wounded soldiers. ‘Water, water!’ came the pitiful cry from the parched lips of the half-demented fellows.
As the fevered brains of the wounded perceived the approach of the detail, they would try to rise and would call of water, water! Many fell again to the ground, perhaps to arise no more. These wailing cries of the wounded continued to pierce the night. The distressing sounds wrung the hearts of the detail.”
After finding the battalion’s position, Church and another lieutenant groped their way to the line of resistance on the left, while Butler established liaison with the front line on the right. After several hours, Butler and Church managed to find each, and the regimental command post, where Church, still weak from his severe wounding at Soissons, “fell into a wire bunk, exhausted,” Charles Butler wrote.
Dense fog greeted the early risers the next morning. “Never was there a denser fog than that which ushered in the morning of October 9th,” the First Division’s history would report. But the dank clouds had a silver lining, it added: “Fog is the best protection that could be provided for assaulting machine gun nests.”
At 8:30 a.m., using the advantage of the thick mist, the First Division’s last great push of the war began, as the 16th Regiment’s first battalion moved to relieve the 28th’s second battalion near St. Germaine spring. As the battalion approached the hill, the 28th’s men passed through it, coming “out of the fog in front and running to the rear as fast as possible,” the battalion’s Capt. Leonard Boyd would remember.
Fearing the fleeing men would sow “the seed of panic” in his own battalion, one of Boyd’s company commanders stopped one of the retreating soldiers. “Word was passed along the lines to let the men of the 28th Infantry go through,” Boyd wrote. “The knowledge that they were not part of the battalion restored the steadiness of the men.”
As Boyd’s men ascended Hill 272 behind a rolling barrage, infiltrating and eliminating machine-gun nests, Company D and the 28th’s first battalion prepared to move out, their destination Hill 263 at the north end of the valley. And when Company D moved out, it was behind Marvin Everett Stainton, 23 years old, the kid from Laurel, Mississippi who’d pined for this for more than a year, and who’d chafed under the stifling boredom of training black at Fort Logan Roots, withering under the ignominy of that domestic backwater, while the history of the world hung at a precipice and others were doing their part, his part.
It was the biggest day of Marvin’s life, and the best day, the culmination of all that he had wanted as he had stewed in that Arkansas heat through most of 1917 and half of 1918; and one can picture him laughing the loudest as Company D’s noncoms and officers sat around that shell hole at Arietal Farm on the morning of October 9th, 1918, them “all of good cheer,” as Lynn Barnes would write, even as mustard gas-tinged fog wrapped around their ankles, as machine-gun fire raked the air overhead, as the deep crescendos from exploding .77s and the snaking, hissing sounds of minenwerfers seeking their targets further collapsed the woods of the Petit Bois, as hell itself seemed to erupt with the 16th Regiment’s storming of Hill 272 just to the west.
They moved out at 8:52 a.m. — “Lieut. Stainton and Sergt. Vedral of this Co in charge of the first line and first wave of the second platoon, and I with the second line of the first wave,” Barnes would write. Moving north through the battered valley and splintered woods of the Petit Bois, the company’s platoons had not gone far before they were separated.
German bunkers were cleaned out the old-fashioned way. “My pal and I went past a German dugout, and my pal said, ‘there is someone down in that dugout,” Pvt. John Durbrow of the 28th Regiment would recall. “He hollered in German for them to come out, but nobody answered, so I threw a hand grenade down and pretty soon a German came out with his hands up and limping and hollering ‘kamerad.’ ”
“We then threw another bomb down into the dugout, and after it went out we told the German to go down and bring out all the killed and wounded. He brought up two dead and two wounded German soldiers. One of them was suffering pretty bad, so I finished him with his rifle.”
Company D advanced the same way, cleaning out bunkers and routing machine gunners well concealed in the dank woods. At about 11:30 a.m., “The Huns drop a nice box barrage just back of our first waves and as the [terrain] of our advance was wooded hills, we got more or less separated,” Sgt. Anthony Vedral would write. “When partly reorganized (the) Co. proceeded on towards our last objective, Hill 263. Lt. Stainton being at that time being cut off by enemy barrage, proceeded a little later with 7 men in reconnoitering patrol on our left.”
“A German machine gunner was giving our outfit trouble,” Pvt. James Jones remembered. “It was a dirty pocket and Stainton asked how many of us would follow him. Seven of our guys stepped out. Well, sir, we went into that Dutch bunch with all pistols blazing and we got 132 prisoners and captured nine machine guns, got a colonel, a captain and a lieutenant in an officer’s dug out.”
Marvin, Jones added, had become a leader “that the men sure would to hell for if he gave the order. Nothing but a kid, too, always ahead of his men, yelling out to encourage them and giving them a good example.”
Lynn Barnes agreed. “In this valley through the Lieuts. good leader ship we captured 7 machine guns and 64 prisoners,” he would write. “Among their killed I cannot say only I got 8. For us we lost none there.”
Marvin Everett Stainton’s mood was right, his fateful purpose intact, a well of heretofore unknown abilities located deep inside himself, and one can’t help but imagine that it was in the midst of that mean, nasty work being done there in those woods against the mean, nasty Boche that Marvin for the first time truly found himself, finally attained that ephemeral right of passage between youth and manhood, bridged the life-changing divide between dreams and reality and set himself upon a new course, a new life, and towards a foreseeable and agreeable future.
Even as Marvin and his mates finished their work that afternoon, others were gaining dark, new insights into their mortality, among them Lt. Bill Warren, who was very nearly killed by a machine-gun bullet that creased his neck and barely missed his carotid artery. Warren wrote his father from his hospital bed on October 15 to count his mixed blessings:
“A machine gun bullet started at my chin, passed along the right side of my neck and came out above my right shoulder. In its path it miraculously avoided all vessels of importance… My wound will probably leave a slight scar on my neck, which will be an emblem of my part in the war. Anyway, it gives me a chance to rest up a bit and perhaps the war will be over before I have a chance to get back into the fighting again.”
As Marvin and his squad continued clearing Death Valley, elements of the 28’s first and third battalions began ascending Hill 263. “The steep, heavily wooded slope of Hill 263 presented many difficulties, and the men were often compelled to pull themselves up by clinging to the brush and small trees,” the division’s history says. “The hostile defense consisted of dispersed machine guns which were taken by groups of men who flanked them under the cover of the brush and the deep ravines along the slope.”
Halfway to the crest, Company C’s Lt. Otus Lippincott’s platoon was stymied by German machine-gun fire that caused severe casualties. “A runner sent to the platoon on my right reported he was unable to locate this unit, or that from any other outfit,” he recalled. “A runner to D Company on my left reported that company badly shot-up, with no officers left in the Company and that they had been ordered to fall back… and dig in.”
Company D had indeed taken severe casualties on the hill, among them Pvt. Solon Paul Gunderson, the Camp Grant replacement from Mindoro, Wisconsin. “He was in my squad at the time and was killed about four paces from where I was,” his best pal, Pvt. Martin Mikkelson, also of Mindoro, would write home. “He was not the only one who went ‘west up there, I’m sorry to say.”
Private Steve Bolis, a Greek immigrant to Warren, Ohio also fell on the approach to the hill. “He was killed by several machine gun bullets, he died instantly,” Private Herbert Maltman remembered. “We had just about reached our objective when he was hit.”
The Irishman and Pvt. Michael Walshe’s American odyssey ended the same manner, and nearly in the same place; Pvts. Noble Jackson, Stephen Curran, Stanley Latuk, and Ross Walker would also find that hill to be a permanent impasse on that day.
While part of Company D dug in alongside Lippincott’s platoon in the center of the hill — “From about noon of October 9th, until about 8 a.m. October 10th, we were completely cut off from the units in our rear and had no contact with troops on either flank,” Lippincott would write — others found a way up Hill 263, among them, Marvin Stainton.
Delayed by the work in Death Valley, Marvin and his small squad emerged at the base of the hill in the late afternoon, by which time the hill’s northern slope had been reached by elements of the first and third battalions. “Then it was just about 5 min walk to Hill 263 and our objective,” Sgt. Lynn Barnes remembered. “We made it all right but the bullets sure were coming our way.”
Under fire, Marvin and his squad wearily climbed Hill 263’s south escarpment to near its crest, where Sgt. Anthony Vedral found him. “At about 6 o’clock that afternoon (just at dusk) Lt. Stainton arrived to our position and started to dig in, as we were under heavy artillery fire,” Vedral would later tell Sam Stainton. “Your Brother preserved his good nature and humor in spite of all the hardships. And he preserved it to the very last for when he found me on Hill 263… he was full of joy when he related to me how himself with only seven men captured some 63 prisoners and 7 machine guns.”
Marvin picked up a shovel and began digging a hole for the night just below the hill’s southern crest. But as he dug in, there suddenly was a low whistle, and then a dull crump, as a shell coming from the German positions north of Hill 263 cleared the rise and dropped in the middle of the company. Rising from the brambles and underbrush and shaking mud from their uniforms, the men checked for casualties, and found Marvin lying on his face, strangely unmarked — but ominously still.
Next to Marvin lay his runner, a small-town Illinoisan private named Frank Kelly. A few feet away lay Private Fred Lauersdorf, of Gillette, Wisconsin. Sgt. Barnes would remember:
“The Lieut. was not there over 15 minutes till this catastrophe came to him. It was either shrapnel or Trench Mortar that sent the missive on account we were all digging in on the opposite side from the Germans. He was further down the hill than I was and with the same shell killed his runner, Kelly by name, one other man and wounded 4 others.”
Vedral would add:
“Before he was able to remove some 5 shovels full of dirt, a shell exploded 5 paces in rear and below him. He was thrown on his face, slightly laying on his right side. There was only one small wound visible, one under his right shoulder. He was killed more by concussion. We all loved late Lt. Stainton, and when the news of his death reached the men in rear, they produced a sad effect.”
It had taken one quick second to snuff out one of the brightest lights in the company — and perhaps the entire A.E.F. — and it may well be that as the company’s men gathered around his body to mourn and bemoan his passing, they could see the worst of the war’s waste and sacrifice there before them on that forlorn Hill 263.
But while it could be said that Kelly and Lauersdorf had been in the wrong place at the wrong time, it was hard to argue that that was true for Marvin. His efforts of the past year and a half had all pointed towards him being there, on that hill, in the middle of one of the largest and most costly drives of a war whose intentions he believed in so.
And in the end, it may well be that he was born to be on Hill 263 on the evening of October 9th, 1918 – that he had been born to die there, from an errant shell, its explosion the culmination of the day on which he had truly found himself, become himself, towards the end of a war in which his restless spirit had finally found a cause on which to spend its energy.
His brother, Edwin, who was left to write Marvin’s obituary for the Laurel, Mississippi, Daily Leader (where he coincidentally worked as a reporter) after news of his death reached home several weeks later, said much the same in an accounting of Marvin’s legacy:
“[H]e did not enlist from any desire for excitement or adventure — it is as purely a question of patriotism and right with him. He died a glorious death, such as a true soldier craves, in the cause of righteousness and humanity — the cause that Jesus Christ himself died for — on the eve of victory.
He told us when he was at home last that he was ready to die and that if it were his portion to make the great sacrifice all was well and good. He said that somebody had to die and he might as well be one of them. The only thing he seemed to fear was that the war might be over before he could get into the fight. His heart was in the war.”
John Church had the sad duty of burying Marvin. Others picked up shovels to lay Kelly and Lauersdorf to rest near Marvin — “He was buried 15 ft.-20 ft. from where he fell, further up the hill & slightly to the right,” Barnes would remember — in shallow battlefield graves.
Others besides Marvin, Kelly, and Lauersdorf would die that day. As at Cantigny, and Soissons, the company had suffered enormously in the Argonne. As in each of those battles, ten percent of the company — twenty-two men — would be killed, and 28th Regiment records say that another 108 were debilitated by wounds, from gas, and even, in a few cases, “shell shock.”
But no death seemed to touch the men as much as that of the fresh-faced lieutenant from Mississippi, the eager beaver whose boyish enthusiasm for his great adventure seemed to have lifted the spirits of the entire company. And the saddest part of all, George E. Butler would write, was that the worst of the company’s work was done, its war almost finished, at the very moment that Marvin Stainton went West:
Lt. George Butler wrote:
“Lieut. Stainton led his company through the heaviest shell fire I think the Americans ever encountered, after having personally reduced more than a half-dozen enemy machine guns and with a dozen men he captured as I remember it 49 Germans including several German officers, all of the famous Prussian Guards.
Lieut. Stainton had taken all of the objectives assigned to him and had I think won as a hard a fight as any American has ever fought, against odds and the saddest thing to we officers and men who knew him for the man and officer that he was, was the fact that his work was completed, and all fighting that Regiment was to do was finished when a stray shell killed him and several of his men.”
John Church said in a letter of condolence sent to Marvin’s mother on October 24:
“I knew Lieut. Stainton for about three weeks… but in this short time formed quite a warm friendship with him as he had a warm coat and I a warm blanket, we shared them and slept in the same hole. Believe me, madam, friendships are formed in a short while or never when men share a common danger continuously.
In action, he never thought of his own safety, but always the success of the engagement was paramount and I assure you that his courage was always of the highest and the soldierly qualities displayed by him of the finest type.”
“Slim” Jones would add his two cents in a letter to Sam Dave Stainton:
“I was with Lieut. Stainton from daybreak on the 9th day of October until 4 p.m. in the afternoon, and I can say that I have not met any man who was braver or had any more nerve than your brother, and you can take one man’s word to another.
“I am proud, and so are the rest of the men, that I had the pleasure of having a man like Lieut. Stainton to lead me in the face of death. For he was always cheerful and had us in good spirits all day long. He would keep saying, “Boys, that hill is where we want to go,” and you can take it from me, we went. That day will always be indelibly impressed upon my mind, for I think that we, meaning Lieut. Stainton and what few of the men that were left, did our bit for the freedom of the world.”