77 years later, a World War II soldier is brought home to Robeson County

Oct 14, 2021
Originally published on October 13, 2021 9:21 am

All but one of 1st Lt. James “Dick” Wright’s nine siblings died while waiting for word of what happened to him, and his remaining sister is 100 years old.

This week though, the remains of the hero who vanished during World War II were finally returned to his tiny Robeson County hometown.

Wright’s mother, Mamie, had a recurring vision. She’d be in front of the family farmhouse, tending the hundreds of marigolds and daffodils she had planted along their dirt road, and she’d look up and see her son Dick walking toward the house

“She always believed he would come home,” said Diana Merkt, the great niece of Dick Wright. She heard that story a lot growing up.

Wright’s mother couldn’t know that it would take 77 years for his remains to come home – and after stops in a French river, two graves in Luxembourg, and years in a Nebraska military identification lab.

It took help from a gifted amateur historian. And a big measure of luck.

James Wright

But he’s finally together with his mother, father and seven of his brothers and sisters in a small graveyard spread under some pines. Wright was given a proper funeral service, finally, with a military chaplain officiating.

“Lt. Wright is home. We reunite him to the American soil upon which his house still stands,” the chaplain said. “The soil he once played on as a child and walked on as an adult.”

The cemetery is just a few hundred yards from that house, on the south edge of Lumber Bridge – a small town south of Fort Bragg with a population of less than 100 people.

Before the war, Dick Wright had worked on the farm and at a general store in town, led his church’s Sunday school and was in the North Carolina National Guard.

In the war, Wright was assigned to Company F, 2nd Battalion, 11th Infantry Regiment, 5th Infantry Division. In 1944, his unit was part of Lt. Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army and had been fighting across France that summer.

As his unit fought its way across France, he received the Silver Star for valor.

Then, in September of that year, his unit was ordered to cross a flood-swollen river near the German border, but was forced back in fierce fighting.

Hundreds of American soldiers were killed, wounded or captured. Wright was last seen taking a boat to rescue survivors.

The final letter Wright wrote to his wife – and former high school sweetheart – Margaret, was on its way back to North Carolina. Part of it read: “We have liberated another town this time, a much larger one, and they are the happiest people I've ever seen.”

Wright’s great-great niece, Air Force Staff Sgt. Sidney Brookman, read from the letter at his graveside service.

She continued: “The going is pretty tough at times, but you know me and Yanks can take it. After seeing what this means to all of the (thousands) of people, we don't mind it half as much as it just inspires us even more. Some lose their lives. Some are injured, some become sick, and it is all together just an unpleasant mess. But often the goal is done. The job is done and we feel it's worth it.”

 1st Lt. James “Dick” Wright shown in uniform during World War II.

Months after he vanished, an Army recovery team found two bodies floating in the river. One didn’t have dog tags and was buried in Luxembourg as an unknown – first in a temporary grave, then a more permanent one.

About 10 years ago, the Defense Department asked Wesley Johnston, a California-based historian, to help identify the remains. His work helped eliminate several candidates, then military historians, anthropologists and DNA experts took over.

Eventually, they contacted Wright family, who provided DNA samples.

On July 9, 2021, the identification was made official.

Merkt, who was using a walker at the ceremony, marveled.

“When you realize that this is really happening, that they found that needle in the haystack, it's just really hard to grasp,” she said. “But the overwhelming feeling that all of us have is, thank God that we were alive to see that he was found. It's just unbelievable.”

And it was just in time. Merkt’s mother, Elizabeth – Wright's lone surviving sister – was too weak to travel to North Carolina from her nursing home in Florida. Family had to send her photos and videos from the service.

Brookman continued reading from her great-great uncle’s final letter: “Well, I have to stop now though. I will write again as soon as I can. And please don't worry when I don't write. I'll be okay and I'll be home before you know it.”

And now, he finally is.

Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio. To see more, visit North Carolina Public Radio.