by Jackie Wright
“He turned my mourning into dancing,” a verse from Psalm 30, befits the joy felt by the Wright family. History is the story of our lives, not always about the iconic figures of the day. The history of civil rights in the U.S. can be found among us, if we just turn the pages of our family albums.
For most, the pain of the loss of loved ones is so great that they look away and never look back. For our family, 50 years after the death of our father, Sp5 Wyley Wright Jr., in Viet Nam on March 9, 1964, as he accepted an extra mission to join the Honor Guard for Secretary of Defense Robert S. McNamara two weeks from coming home with his new orders for Fort Hamilton, New York, we, who rarely talked about the loss over the years, had to look back.
After our 2012 family reunion on the July 4th weekend in Jacksonville, Fla., we were compelled to look deep and long when we saw the graveyard where he lay was deteriorating – and the realization set in that it was segregated. There’s no way we could leave our father in a deteriorating cemetery, a segregated one at that, when he gave his all to his country. The City of Jacksonville had not kept its promise over the years to maintain the cemeteries in North Jacksonville.
As we found out that wives could also be buried in Arlington, we thought it appropriate that Ouida Fay McLendon Wright be buried with him, as she was the love of his life who followed him to each post she could. Starting at Fort Benning, Ga., she moved to Wildflecken, near Wertheim, Germany, to Holloman Air Force Base, New Mexico, and to his last station, Fort Knox, Kentucky, home of the 114th Aviation Company.
The four Wright children pooled our resources to give our parents the honor that “salt of the earth” people deserve. Our mother, who built our family home at 1103 Bedford Ave. in the Cedar Hills Subdivision of Columbus, Ga., created her own history as she hired one of a very few Black contractors in the ‘60s, Ed Stovall, to build our home of Tennessee stone.
We believe she would have been proud of the economic impact we made by hiring Black companies for the most part and those that had a significant Black staff as we honored her and her loving husband, “Wright,” as she lovingly called him. Their teachings of respect for all people and not to take “no” for an answer obviously stuck with us as we had just over 30 days’ notice to bring to fruition their reburial at one of the most sacred grounds in the world, Arlington National Cemetery.
One Bay Area media outlet, to date, has carried our story. Producer Sandra Firpo of KGO Radio thought the story had merit and by coincidence or providence called just as we had not only disinterred but also viewed my father. Thank you, Sandra for considering our story among the myriad you are confronted with daily.
It was an emotional moment. My sister, Phyllis Wright Cameron of Antioch, an insurance executive, was knowingly in the presence of our dad for the first time, as she was six months old when he died. He only saw pictures of her and never got the opportunity to hold his baby girl.
With Phyllis’ demand to remove the burial wrapping and to see our father, we witnessed his remains that included his signature gold tooth and gold crown that always shined in the light with his laughter, as I remember. There was an obvious ritualistic pinning of the army blankets he was wrapped in and there were two dog tags with his name, serial number, which I recall began with RA, his blood type O and his religion, Methodist.
Jacksonville photographer and Viet Nam veteran Ronald Breaker told us one was intended for the family and one was to stay with the body. “It’s one of the old ones. It’s got the dent in it. They say from pushing it up against the teeth after a soldier dies,” Mr. Breaker whispered to us. After 50 years, we finally got the memorial that was intended for us, something we did not know existed.
Seeing our father’s remains laid to rest the question as to whether his body had actually been recovered. For our 50 years, that was a question in the back of the mind for my brothers Joe Wright of Columbus, Georgia, Stanley Wright of Orangeburg, S.C., and me. As kids, we all heard whispers at the funeral that the military just weighs down the casket to make it seem like a body is inside. There was no doubt now.
Media reports that captured some of our journey include:
- News4Jax, Jacksonville, Fla.: Family moving fallen soldier’s body
- Florida Times-Union, Jacksonville: Jacksonville soldier, among first killed in Vietnam, to be reunited with wife at Arlington National Cemetery
- WRBL, Columbus, Ga.: Army couple reunited at Arlington National Cemetery
- ABC 9 WTVM, Columbus, Ga.: Vietnam veteran relocated to Arlington Natl. Cemetery
One of the owners of Green Acres Cemetery asked me why media had been notified. As I mentally waded through the many negative stories of the day in Columbus, Ga. – and many were about the Black community – I replied, “Because you very seldom see the picture of ‘salt of the earth’ Black people. Millions of them who make contributions to this country raising their families as best they can and enriching this nation daily are not seen in media.”
I also gave a quick synopsis of UCLA Law Professor Dr. Jerry Kang’s “Trojan Horses of Race“: If all you see is the negative side of a community, that is all you will believe about them; and it translates into distortion that effects economics, quality of life and self-esteem, and it gives some license to justify their racist and prejudicial actions.
As I chatted with one veteran reporter, Phil Scoggins of WRBL TV in Columbus, Ga., who stood with us for over an hour and a half at mother’s gravesite – a great deal of time for a broadcast journalist – I stated that our father’s story goes beyond Black history, it is an American history story, it is Viet Namese history (Vinh Long, an army base in South Viet Nam, was named “Shannon Wright” for Wyley Wright and fellow pilot Kenneth Shannon), it’s a military history story and it’s a love story. There are so many elements.
The day Sp5 Wyley Wright Jr. and PFC John Francis Shea, a volunteer gunner from the 560th Military Police Unit, died, Viet Namese fisherman helped point out the oil slick of the downed helicopter. A Latino helicopter pilot, Capt. Emilio Zamora – a rare position for a Latino in the ‘60s – hovered over the location allowing photos of the accident, and Viet Namese diver Tran Van Tham helped the U.S. Navy recover the wreckage. A book about the “Knights of the Air” described the scene.
This journey of honoring our father and mother has brought us added treasure. Not only did we retrieve the half of the dog tags that was supposed to be ours, we found the treasure of people, including George Moll, who was a 19-year-old Southerner from Houston when he served with our Dad as a gunner from August of 1963 to January of 1963.
A 50-year dream come true for me to meet someone who knew my father! “Everyone wanted to ride in Wyley’s helicopters because they were so well maintained. He was a perfectionist,” Moll told us at the memorial service. “If I had taken half the advice Wyley gave me back then, I’d be a better man than I am today,” he added.
With just a two week notice, George Moll and wife Diana pressed through 50 years of time to tell us our Dad was a “soldiers’ soldier.” The value of the gift of Moll’s message to us was increased as Diana said in the mid-90s George was a deliberate target by two paroled felons who had been in jail for attempted murder, but who wanted to get the perverse badge of killing someone.
They feigned having car trouble. Got the police to call a tow truck. When George arrived, no police at hand, the two beat him up, slit his throat and left him for dead. Blind in one eye, walking with a cane and sometimes using a wheel chair and having his speech affected, George Moll traveled through time and the challenges of life to give four kids affirmation about their father. What do you do with such a humbling gift? May God give us wisdom to honor such a gift that came out of the kiln of devotion of Viet Nam war veterans.
And the gifts don’t stop there. The widow of Lt. Kenneth A. Shannon, a 25-year-old pilot whose helicopter was shot down five days after he arrived in Viet Nam, Ginger Shannon Young, now of Lynchburg, Va., also with little notice came to help us honor our parents. Ginger, “the hugger” as she says of herself, was quite the delight as she brought us joy in the midst of the reality of both our losses. Just five days after encouraging us, “Miss Ginger” went to visit her first husband’s grave and the Viet Nam War Memorial.
The Wright kids were ages 10, 8, 5 and 6 months when father died March 9, 1964, and 16, 14, 11 and 6 years old when mother died on March 9, 1970. We had no idea growing up that our father was honored with Lt. Shannon by having a banner bearing his name over the archway of the Vinh Long camp, known as the Shannon-Wright Compound – nor had we recognized that Lt. Shannon’s name was near our Dad’s on “The Wall.”
We touch each other’s lives in many ways. If we’d only take time to talk and share our families’ albums, we would probably see each other and maybe just maybe we would not allow ourselves to be caught up so quickly in the winds of war.
As the drums of war beat ever louder today, maybe it would be good for all of us to consider Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On?” and Edwin Starr’s “War!” Hopefully the music will calm the savage souls.
Jackie Wright is the president of Wright Enterprises, a full service public relations firm. She has 20 years of media experience, including more than a decade of award-winning journalism experience in radio, television and print communications. She graduated from University of Georgia’s Henry W. Grady School of Journalism, home of the prestigious George Foster Peabody Awards, and also earned a BA in drama. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org and visit Wright Enterprises, where this story first appeared.