Platoon Sergeant Leon Walter McStine

Leon McStine, date unknown.
Leon McStine, date unknown.

Photo from WTOP.

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NAME:
Leon Walter McStine
NICKNAME:
“The Great One”
SERVICE NUMBER:
240905
HOME OF RECORD:
Brooklyn, NY
NEXT OF KIN:
Wife, Mrs. Antoinette McStine
DATE OF BIRTH:
April 10, 1913
ENLISTED:
December 15, 1933
DATE OF DEATH:
September 25, 1942
(September 17, 1942)
CAMPAIGN UNIT MOS RATE FATE
Guadalcanal B/1/1 Platoon Sergeant KIA
CAUSE OF DEATH:
Gunshot wounds
INDIVIDUAL DECORATIONS:
Purple Heart, Good Conduct Medal (2)
LAST KNOWN RANK:
Platoon Sergeant
STATUS OF REMAINS:
Buried in the field, location unknown
MEMORIAL:
Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, Philippines.
Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia.

Birth and Early Life:
Leon McStine was born in Shamokin, Pennsylvania in 1913. He was of Polish extraction–a 1920’s census taker guessed “Minkstein,” and a family tree lists his original family name as “Myksztajn”–and spent part of his childhood in the coal-mining community of Kulpmont. His family relocated to Brooklyn, New York during McStine’s teenage years and settled in at 1493 Pacific Street in the Bedstuy neighborhood.

Leon attended school until the eighth grade before dropping out, never to return. He found employment as a weaver for a time, but the work was dull and job prospects poor in the Depression years. Thus in 1933, Leon McStine decided to join the Marine Corps.

Enlistment and Boot Camp:

McStine1

Although he was twenty years old at the time of his enlistment, McStine still had to secure parental permission to enlist. After being duly examined, physical characteristics noted (gray eyes, brown hair, ruddy complexion) and identifying scars (five) recorded, the young man was sworn in at the New York, NY Recruiting Station at 90 Church Street. In a few days, McStine was just another boot at Parris Island–and took to Marine training like a fish to water, even qualifying as a rifle sharpshooter his first time on the range. His confidence reflected in his new service record photograph (above), Private McStine received orders to report to his first duty station: the Naval Powder Factory at Indian Head, Maryland.

Service Prior to World War II:
Duty at Indian Head was just the beginning of years of service on the East Coast for Leon McStine. He spent nearly 24 months on the rolls of the ammunition depot, occasionally standing guard at the Dahlgren Naval Proving Ground and Marine Corps Base Quantico. In late 1935, McStine was accepted to Sea School at Norfolk, Virginia. After graduating, he was assigned to the cruiser USS Quincy as part of her first Marine detachment, but his sea-going career was cut short by some unknown reason, and he returned to Norfolk in May, 1936. (1) Private McStine served out the rest of his enlistment with the base fire department; his commanders gave him uniformly excellent marks, and he was awarded the Good Conduct Medal when his term of service expired on December 14, 1937.

McStine2

Leon McStine returned to civilian life long enough to decide it was not for him, and promptly reenlisted on January 5, 1938. and was reassigned to the Navy Yard at League Island, Philadelphia. Within six months he had been transferred to duty with the First Marine Brigade, and settled into life with Company B, First Battalion, Fifth Marines.

Although he was authorized to wear the hashmark of a four-year veteran along with his Good Conduct Medal, McStine was still a private – and, as a new man in the unit, was expected to spend his first few months as a company messman, helping serve meals to the company. Either he took to this work or figured his chances of promotion were faster in the kitchen; in December 1938, with his regiment en route to Puerto Rico, McStine reported to the battalion Headquarters as a student cook.(2) While the brigade trained at Camp A. W. Johnson in Culebra, McStine sweated in a hot kitchen; whether the training took or not is unknown as he returned to Company B in May 1939 as a rifleman – but sporting the stripe of a Private First Class.

A welcome promotion for Leon McStine.
A welcome promotion for Leon McStine.

McStine transferred back to Philadelphia in June, 1939. He added the second stripe of a corporal on 21 October, 1939, and moved up to sergeant on February 23, 1940. His performance as sergeant of the guard at the Philadelphia Navy Yard was rated “excellent” to “outstanding.” Major John E. Curry commented that McStine was a “Good leader–stands for no nonsense, gets results without trouble” in March 1940.  and put in a recommendation for his further promotion to the rank of platoon sergeant.

Despite the enthusiastic recommendations of officers and his spotless disciplinary record, Sergeant McStine’s promotion was held up. Although doubtless disappointed, McStine handled every task he received that year–from policing errant Marines in Philadelphia to recruiting them in North Carolina, and even serving in Cuba with a provisional Marine company.

Effective January 1, 1941, Sergeant McStine reported for duty with the Third Battalion, Seventh Marines. Assigned at first to Company K, he was shortly transferred to Company I, and once again made a good impression. “As an instructor in basic training in this company and as an acting platoon sergeant, his performance has been outstanding,” wrote his commanding officer, 1st Lieutenant Theodore Sheffield, that May. “He is active physically and mentally, sober and industrious, an excellent leader and has a high degree of initiative and a great sense of responsibility. It is my belief that he is well qualified to be a platoon sergeant. And I would be glad to have him in my command under any conditions.”

McStine3

However it would take a third enlistment–and the outbreak of war–for Leon McStine to earn his long-awaited rating.

Wartime Service:
Immediately upon signing the papers for his third four-year hitch, Leon McStine was authorized to wear the three stripes and rocker of a platoon sergeant; furthermore, he filled out the requisite paperwork to change his next of kin from his parents to his new wife, Antoinette. However, he was not destined to remain with his buddies in the 7th Marines for long. That March, McStine reported to Baker Company, First Marines; he was quickly appointed an acting gunnery sergeant by First Lieutenant Marshall T. Armstrong, the company commander.

Having spent eight of his twenty eight years in the service, McStine was well qualified as an instructor–and he had his work cut out for him as the First Marine Division rapidly expanded with fresh recruits. Most of the new men were eager to learn, though McStine was tasked with apprehending two Marines who overstayed their leave and escorting them back to the brig. Again, his efficiency and dedication to his work attracted the notice of his superiors. “Reliable, efficient, and forceful,” said Lieutenant Armstrong, who also praised McStine’s “thorough knowledge of infantry weapons” and noted that the NCO had passed the qualifications for the rank of Gunnery Sergeant. Once again, the rating would have to wait for an open billet, and McStine busied himself with his correspondence school as the First Marines prepared to leave the United States for further training in New Zealand.

The expected training program did not happen; the First Marine Division unloaded at Auckland and then precipitously re-loaded to meet the daunting schedule for the invasion of Guadalcanal. In their landing on August 7, 1942, the Marines were surprised to find their landing unopposed. McStine and the First Marines forged inland, searching for a “grassy knoll” they were supposed to conquer and defend. This was later discovered to be Guadalcanal’s Mount Austen, and it was an unreachable distance away; instead, the regiment slogged over ridges and through rainforest to capture the airfield. The operation quickly unraveled as the Japanese navy took control of the sea, leaving McStine and his comrades with the most tenuous of footholds on Guadalcanal. Gradually, they began to encounter the Japanese, first near the village of Papangu, and then more dramatically in the battle of the Tenaru (Ilu) River. Without the strength, supplies, or support needed to drive the Japanese off the island, the First Marines settled into defensive positions.

The Battle of Bloody Ridge, which pitted Major General Kiyotake Kawaguchi’s brigade against Merritt Edson’s First Raider Battalion on a ridge not far from Henderson Field, was a wake-up call for the Marines. They had won, but barely–the Japanese had been allowed to approach too close to Marine lines, and thus the Marines would have to improve the quantity and strength of their patrols. With the enemy in full retreat on September 14, McStine’s 1/1st Marines made a tentative prove forward, but was turned back by the Japanese rearguard. The battalion commander, Lieutenant Colonel Lenard Cresswell, decided to return within a few days–bringing a much stronger force with him.

Date Of Loss:
On September 17, 1942, 1/1 sent out a patrol consisting of Companies A and B, plus some headquarters Marines and crew-serviced weapons, to find out what had become of the remnants of Kawaguchi’s force. A platoon from Company B–with Leon McStine at the front–led the patrol along the Lunga River through the morning and into the early afternoon, before running headlong into a well-armed Japanese force at around 1330.

The lead elements of McStine’s platoon were quickly cut off and surrounded by the enemy. A bitter fight raged for two and a half hours, and with the Japanese showing no signs of falling back, the Division gave up and ordered 1/1 to break contact. The trapped Marines were abandoned to their fate.

An extremely upset Company B returned to Marine lines after dark; stretcher bearers toted three wounded men, but it was the number of missing–eighteen, nearly half a platoon–that was truly troublesome. (3)

A full week went by before Major Marion A. Fawcett  led a second patrol to the spot where the lost Marines were last seen. The eighteen men were all dead. Among the crumpled forms was Platoon Sergeant McStine, who had suffered multiple gunshot wounds. By necessity, the dead were buried where they fell. Nine of them–including McStine–were never found.(4)

The Brooklyn Daily Eagle ran this list of Navy casualties on November 12, 1942, with the accompanying story about Mrs. McStine.
Of note in the casualty lists are Privates Elmer Garrettson and Philip Kuhl, who by coincidence were killed in the same incident as Leon McStine.

Next Of Kin:
Wife, Mrs. Antoinette J. McStine

McStine Letter

Status Of Remains:
Reported field burial on Guadalcanal; unknown if recovered.

Memorial:
Manila American Cemetery and Memorial, Philippines.
Arlington National Cemetery, Virginia.
_____
NOTES:
(1) “Cpl. Alfred R. Griffith and Pvt. Leon W. McStine were transferred to the Barracks Detachment, being replaced by Pvts. “A.” “D.” Tabor and Robert W. Westphal, from the Sea School Detachment.” Don Karlos, “Sea Going: The Quincy Lancers.” Leatherneck Magazine, vol. 19, no. 6 (April, 1936): 19.
(2) This appears to have been a newsworthy event, worthy of publication. “SECOND PLATOON: McStine, the Great One, has recently been promoted to mess duty.” Anonymous, “Fifth Marines,” Leatherneck Magazine, vol. 21, no. 12 (December, 1938): 24.
(3) Major John L. Zimmerman, The Guadalcanal Campaign, (Washington, D. C.: Historical Division, U. S. Marine Corps, 1949), 93.
(4) This patrol was led by Major Marion Fawcett, the battalion’s executive officer Although the Marines were likely all killed on the day they were trapped, they were officially declared dead as of September 25.

Known casualties include (names of the recovered in italics):
Platoon Sergeant Leon McStine
Sergeant George R. Greenlee
Corporal George W. Compton
PFC Morris Q. Curry
PFC Charles F. Debele, Jr.
PFC Elmer F. Garrettson
PFC Ralph C. Ingerson
PFC Leslie L. Rice
Private Mickey Aubry Boschert
Private Philip Samuel Kuhl
Private John Roscoe Lilly
Private Bernard J. Luecking

Private Wilbur McElvaine
Private Frederick Lewis Secor
Private Riley D. Shockley

(Total: 15. The original count of 18 may have mistakenly included the three men WIA, or perhaps included men from other companies.)

Why nine remain “missing” is unknown. Platoon Sergeant McStine’s personal service record notes that he was buried in the field, meaning his body was located and positively identified. (Frustratingly, the sketch overlay purporting to give the coordinates of McStine’s burial is missing from his service record.)

Possible explanations include a) after a week in tropical conditions, some bodies were simply unrecognizable, and lacked other means of identification; b) Japanese soldiers moved the bodies or looted the remains for souvenirs, leaving them unfindable or unidentifiable; c) all were identified and properly buried, but the passage of time and jungle growth obliterated some of the graves (a not uncommon occurrence on Guadalcanal).

8 thoughts on “Platoon Sergeant Leon Walter McStine

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