The daughter of a Jacksonville soldier killed in Vietnam produced a documentary about reburying him with his wife in Arlington National Cemetery.
The story goes that while the Army was shipping Wyley Wright Jr. home from Korea in the 1950s, a friend of his accidentally dropped a small picture from his wallet. Wright bent to pick it up.
Whoah. It was a beautiful young woman in a dress, wearing a multi-strand necklace and a fetching smile.
Hey, you’ve got to introduce me to her when we get back, Wright said. His friend did.
That led to marriage and four children for Wyley and Ouida Wright, the woman in the photo. But by May 1963, the Army had sent the career soldier back to Asia, where he was among the thousands of so-called military advisers sent to Vietnam.
Later that year, as the Wrights’ 11th anniversary drew near, Wyley took that photo of his wife to a Vietnamese photographer. He enlarged it and paired it with one of the soldier, taken in Vietnam, lean and confident in civilian clothing. On it, Wyley wrote: “To Ouida, the love of my life.”
It made it to the States in time for their Jan. 17, 1964, anniversary.
By March 9, 1964, Spc. 5 Wright, a native of Jacksonville, was two weeks from coming home. On that day he got in a helicopter that was escorting another helicopter that would carry Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara on a tour of jungle battlefields.
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The commanding officer of the 114th Aviation Co. was later quoted as saying the pilot of Wright’s helicopter made too steep a turn during the flight, and the craft crashed into a swamp in the Mekong Delta. The pilot and co-pilot made it out, but Wright and John Francis Shea, a 20-year-old from Connecticut, who were tied in their seats, drowned.
McNamara, according to news accounts, saw the crash from his helicopter.
Wright was 32, the 117th U.S. service member killed in a war that would eventually claim more than 58,000 Americans.
And at home near Fort Benning, Ga., after soldiers came to tell her of her husband’s death, Ouida Wright went into a catatonic state and was hospitalized. Six years later, on the anniversary of Wyley’s death, she died of pancreatic cancer. She was just 35.
The couple’s eldest child, Jackie Wright, has now told some of their story in a 15-minute film she directed. Called “Love Separated in Life ... Love Reunited in Honor,” it won a short-documentary award at the 2018 Houston International Film Festival.
It tells how the Wright family, 50 years after his death, had their father’s coffin exhumed from a little cared-for, segregated cemetery in Jacksonville so he could be reburied in Arlington National Cemetery.
They also moved their mother’s coffin from a cemetery near Fort Benning to Arlington, so she could be next to her husband again.
The film tells how the ceremony at Arlington introduced the Wright family to two people with links to their father.
One was George Moll, who at 19 had served with Wright in Vietnam. On short notice, he traveled to Arlington to pay his respects and to tell the family about their father.
Wright had been a helicopter crew chief, and Moll told the Wrights how everyone wanted to fly on his helicopter, he took such good care of it.
The other was Ginger Shannon Young, whose husband Kenneth Shannon, a pilot, was shot down shortly after Wright’s death. Their fellow soldiers in Vietnam then named their camp the Shannon Wright Compound — an honor the Wright family had not previously known.
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Jackie Wright was struck by the fact that Shannon was white and her father was black, but that made little difference to the men who served with them. “Their colleagues put together a white officer and a black non-commissioned officer together, in a very tough war,” she said.
The film also follows her trip to Vietnam with her youngest sister, Phyllis Wright Cameron, where they honored their father and met the daughter of the photographer who created Wyley’s anniversary gift to Ouida.
Wyley Wright grew up in Whitehouse, in rural western Duval County, and joined the Army at 16, planning to make a 20-year career of it. He made it to 15. He had talked about getting out, building a split-level home in Jacksonville and starting an aviation repair company.
After Ouida Wright’s death, a grandmother took care of the children until Jackie Wright was old enough to raise her two youngest siblings.
She is now 66, a media relations specialist who shares time between Dallas and San Francisco. She said she made the film for several reasons. Reminding Jacksonville to take care of its cemeteries was one. Bridging any racial gaps was another.
She had a larger motive too: She wants to inspire people to research their family history, even the painful parts.
For decades, her family had the anniversary present photograph from their father, some memories and some stories. But by researching for the film, she learned so much more.
“We didn’t talk about our parents very much. We had to get stuff done, accomplished,” she said. “I think that was a mistake, looking back on it now. That’s one of the things I hope the film will show people — that they really need to look at the loss they had. It makes them stronger, not weaker.”
Matt Soergel: (904) 359-4082
This story originally published to jacksonville.com, and was shared to other Florida newspapers in the new Gannett Media network.