HUNTINGTON - An American World War I soldier's gun and medals left in a safe deposit box were returned to his son on Monday thanks to the West Virginia Treasurer's Unclaimed Property Division.
David McKee, 75, of Huntington, said he was shocked to find out his father, Mason Shelby McKee, had taken the gun, medals and other items to a Huntington bank's safe deposit box department for safekeeping. After Mason McKee died in the early 1970s, the items remained unclaimed and eventually ended up in the custody of the state Treasury.
"Until I was contacted by the West Virginia Treasurer's Office, I had forgot all about dad's gun and medals," David McKee said. "I vaguely remember something about dad taking them to a bank, but I had forgotten all about it over the years."
West Virginia State Treasurer John Perdue presented the gun and some medals left behind in the box to McKee in a ceremony at his home on Thomas Avenue in Huntington. Some other box contents already had been auctioned, generating more than $400, which Perdue also presented to David McKee.
The safe deposit box also included Mason McKee's World War I victory medal, chronicling the three battles in which he fought; his sharpshooter medal; and his dog tags, which were in the form of a bracelet then.
David McKee says his father, like most World War I veterans, didn't like to talk about the violence of the World War I trenches, which came to epitomize the 1914-18 conflict. In hunting trip cabins and around the house, David McKee said he listened as his father occasionally reminisced with a war buddy.
McKee said the story that stood out the most was the one about his father and a German soldier engaged in one of the life-or-death struggles in the trenches in France.
"I remember him telling that they were being bombarded by the Germans all night and then they would storm the trenches in the day time, so they were not able to sleep much," he recalled. "One day he found himself in a fight to the death with a German soldier."
He said the German soldier had seriously wounded his father with a bayonet.
"He stabbed him in the stomach and it went all the way through him, front to back, but it must have missed vital organs," David McKee said.
He said he recalls his father saying he dropped to his knees in the Argonne Forest, with the tree canopy looming overhead.
"He had dropped his Springfield (firearm) so the only thing he had on him was this flare pistol," David McKee said. "He pulled the pistol out, put it to the guy's chest and pulled. Sulfur burns quite hot, so he just stood there and watched that German burn."
Perdue said the Treasurer's Office had published McKee's name in its list of unclaimed property owners, to no response. Sensing the historical nature of the gun, Perdue says the staff held onto it for as long as it could and could not bear auctioning it off.
"We're thrilled to reunite Mr. McKee with his father's gun and the proceeds from the box," Perdue said. "There are certain types of property I especially enjoy returning to our residents. It's hard to put a price on emotionally meaningful items. The war heroism behind this particular flare gun is harrowing, but not unexpected in that awful war. Thank God for Mason McKee and his succeeding band of soldiers who have sacrificed in ways we can't imagine."
David McKee added some of his past came flooding back to him when he found out he would be getting the gun back. He remembered that his father had altered the gun from its original flare gun format.
"He had a sleeve inserted inside the large circumference barrel, to enable standard ammunition to be fired. The outside barrel approximates a .45 Magnum or .410 shotgun," he said.
McKee said he is not sure what he will do with his father's gun and medals, but he is glad the state Treasurer's Office worked so hard to get them back to where they belong.
"Some things are worth more than money," he said. "This means a lot to me because I don't have anything left of my dad. My brother's the only family left and he has dementia. So yeah, getting this back means something."
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