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Thomas Monroe Wright
1920-1941

"Actually Hawaii turned out to be a great assignment. There was a nice social life, and if you had a good sergeant to handle your ground duties you could fly in the morning and be on the beach in the afternoon. War really messed up the whole thing."

Second Lieutenant Charles E. Taylor, 6th Pursuit Squadron (The Pineapple Air Force, 1990)

U.S. Army Air Corps Private Thomas Monroe Wright was born in Lewis County, West Virginia, on January 15, 1920, the eldest child of Wilbur Leslie Wright and Albina (“Bina”) Phillips Wright, who had been married on March 31, 1917, in Barbour County, West Virginia. The U.S. Federal Census says the family was living at Buck Hill on Freeman’s Creek that year. By 1930, though, the family was living in Weston, the Lewis County seat, and in 1940 they were living in Grant, Monongalia County. While the 1940 census taker enumerated Bina as a “housewife” and “unpaid family worker,” several documents provide a clearer picture of Wilbur’s career journey. His 1917 World War I draft registration card notes that he worked for the Pittsburg [sic] and W. Va. Gas Company; the 1920 census states he was employed with a gas company and also in farming; and the 1930 census indicates he was employed as a laborer in the mines. It is entirely possible that his employment with the gas company led to his working in the mines, as several gas companies also owned coal mining operations. Another possibility is he went into mining because the mines were prospering, and the family moves were precipitated by where the mining jobs were.

The early history of Freeman’s Creek, the largest district in Lewis County, is recounted in Edwin Conrad Smith’s History of Lewis County, West Virginia. The largely rural area was long noted for farming and hunting. Unfortunately, Smith’s History leaves off in 1920, the year in which Thomas was born. (Weston, WV: author, 1920, accessed 13 January 2017, available on Google Books.)

The county of Thomas Wright’s birth stands in the north-central region of the state. It was originally a large territory, from which later all or part of six other counties were formed. Settlers were Scotch-Irish, German, and English; included among them was John Hacker, patriarch of Hacker’s Creek. The county seat was originally called “Preston,” then “Fleshersville,” and finally “Weston.” Construction of the state’s third asylum for the insane, begun in 1859, was halted by the Civil War but renewed in 1863 upon the formation of the new state. Lewis Countians were divided in their loyalties during the War Between the States—many favored the North, but on the other hand “Stonewall” Jackson hailed from Jackson’s Mill. Timbering was a major industry. The West Virginia Encyclopedia notes:

About 1900, oil and natural gas in fabulous quantities were found deep under Lewis County, creating an overnight boom. Cheap gas attracted several glass manufacturers to the county, the earliest ones making window glass, the later ones beverage glassware. Weston and Jane Lew continue to be centers of natural gas production, storage, and transportation, and glass manufacturing.

Lewis County lies between the major northern and southern coalfields of West Virginia. However, some coal of lesser quality began to be mined near Walkersville as early as 1907, and strip mining of coal occurred in all parts of the county following World War II and continuing for 30 years. (Joy Gregoire Gilchrist-Stalnaker, “Lewis County,” e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia, 16 December 2015, accessed 13 January 2017, http://www.wvencyclopedia.org/articles/1362.)

From the family of a gas company worker in Lewis County, the Wrights progressed to the family of a coal miner in Monongalia. Quoting “Jim W.,” Chris DellaMea, on his Coalfields of the Appalachian Mountains website, writes:

I was born in Fayete [sic] County, PA. My father, grandfather and a number of uncles worked in the mines during 1905 - 1940 in Fayette, Greene, and Washington Counties in Pennsylvania. Later my family moved to Monongalia County in West Virginia and I grew up in a coal mining town. In fact, I worked as a slate picker at the mine during my school vacation between my Junior and Senior years in high school. Where I worked we did not have a picking table. We stood on a narrow platform right beside the conveyor on which the coal was carried into the railroad hopper cars. We threw the slate across the conveyor to another platform that was about 8 to 10 feet wide. When the slate accumulated, and there was no more room on this platform, it was then shoveled down to the ground about 12 feet below. There a front end loader picked it up and put it in a slate bucket that carried it up the hillside and emptied between two hills. Surprisingly, all this accumulated slate in a huge slate pile has been hauled away to some unknown place and the area it formerly occupied was all landscaped, including planting of new trees. I'm only guessing that the federal or state government paid for all of this. The mine I worked at was owned by Eastern Gas & Fuel Associates and was located in Everettville, WV. This small town is located about 10 miles south of Morgantown, WV and about a mile west of the Monongahela River, along Indian Creek. (Accessed 13 January 2017, http://www.coalcampusa.com/nowv/fairmont/fairmisc/fairmisc.htm.)
Osage

Steam locomotive passing through the coal camp of Osage in Monongalia County. 1938 Photo by Marion Post Wolcott, Library of Congress. Originally posted by Chris DellaMea in Coalfields of the Appalachian Mountains, accessed 13 January 2017, http://coalcampusa.com. Thomas M. Wright spent his early years in a coal town such as this.

Little is known of Thomas Wright’s early life. He grew up with three brothers—Willard J. was two years older, while Austin (“Buck”) and George S. were three and six years his junior, and sister Ruth Virginia (married name: Ables) was just two years younger. His enlistment record (U.S. World War II Army Enlistment Records, 1938-1946) notes he joined the Army Air Corps at Fort Hayes, Columbus, Ohio, on July 21, 1941, at which time he would have been 21 years old. At that time, he stated he had a grammar school education. What might have been his civilian occupation during this period in his life, from adolescence to full adulthood? The census doesn’t shed any light on this, as the 1940 document states he is a “new worker,” and his enlistment record simply states he entered from “civil life.” It is possible that he enlisted because it appeared that he would ultimately follow his father into the mines, and the lure of the “Hawaiian Department” and the Army Air Corps enticed many a young adult destined to the hard, grueling life of the young coal miner.

Assigned to the 18th Squadron, 17th Air Base Group, Pvt. Wright settled into the pleasant peacetime routine of the “Pineapple Soldier.” He would have been assigned to Hickam or Wheeler Air Force Base. In their book 7 December 1941: The Air Force Story, Leatrice R. Arakaki and John R. Kuborn provide a detailed account of life on those bases at the time of the Japanese attack. Here they describe the personnel of the air bases:

By 7 December 1941, the air arm of the Hawaiian Department had been built up to a total strength of 754 officers and 6,706 enlisted men. Personnel were concentrated on the island of Oahu and assigned to bomber units at Hickam Field, pursuit (fighter) units at Wheeler, the 86th Observation Squadron at Bellows, or to one of the air base groups, maintenance companies, service detachments, and other support units comprising the remainder of the Hawaiian Air Force. In addition to the three major flying installations on Oahu, there was a small training field at Haleiwa on the north shore of the island and emergency or auxiliary fields on other islands of the Hawaiian group, including Kauai, Lanai, Hawaii, Maui, and Molokai.

Personnel of the Hawaiian Air Force came from varied backgrounds. Many were Depression-era youngsters who had never ventured beyond their hometowns or states. Those fortunate enough to go on to college after graduation from high school often joined the Reserve Officers Training Corps (ROTC) program to ease their financial situation, then fulfilled their military commitment as commissioned officers. Some were selected for flight training and won their wings as army aviators. Thousands of other young men, however, faced unemployment or worked at jobs paying meager wages and had no funds to finance college educations. Enticed by posters, radio announcements, word-of-mouth, and newspaper advertisements extolling the advantages of Army life (“experience, advancement, travel, and a lifetime pension”), they dropped in at recruiting stations in great numbers to enlist. Some of those who volunteered were not quite sure where it was located.

John M. Neuhauser, of Flanagan, Illinois, for example learned from his friend, Ned Oliver, that the US Army Air Forces recruiter was signing up men to be sent to Hawaii for training as aircraft mechanics. “Where’s Hawaii?” he asked. “It’s an island in the Pacific Ocean, I think,” Ned said.

Officers and enlisted personnel, as well as family members, sailed to Hawaii on US Army transports like the Republic, Grant, St. Mihiel, Leonard Wood, Chateau Thierry, Hunter Liggett, and Etolin. Those who embarked from San Francisco spent about a week on the high seas. Russell J. Tener recalled “six days of hectic ocean travel, consisting of seasickness, boredom, card playing, and some KP (kitchen police).”

Others, like John W. Wilson, who had enlisted in Philadelphia, spent 21 days on the Army transport that carried them from New York via the Panama Canal. When the ships rounded Diamond Head and docked at the Honolulu harbor near the Aloha Tower, the new arrivals received a typical Hawaiian welcome. The Royal Hawaiian Band serenaded them as they walked down the gangplank, pretty Hawaiian girls greeted them with fragrant flower leis, and dozens of native boys jumped into the water and dove for coins tossed by the soldiers. The newest members of the Hawaiian Air Force then proceeded to one of the three major airfields on the island. (Pacific Air Forces Office of History, Hickam Air Force Base, Hawaii, 1991, pp. 6,8.)

Truly these “pineapple soldiers,” one of whom would have been Thomas Monroe Wright, believed themselves to be in an island paradise. Paradise would be shattered, however, on that “date which will live in infamy.”

grave marker

Courtesy Jeff Hall, Find A Grave

“Air raid, Pearl Harbor, this is no drill.” Such was the radio message that went out just before 8:00 a.m. on December 7, 1941. While many civilians saw the Japanese attack as a surprise, in actuality, it was not entirely unexpected by the military and the U.S. government, and, in retrospect, it was most likely inevitable. Although there had been several diplomatic attempts to avoid or at least forestall involvement in the war, the U.S. War Department had sent military outposts an important but ambiguous “war warning.” In other words, the U.S. government was expecting something to happen somewhere. Nevertheless, America’s battleships (the U.S.S. Nevada, Arizona, Tennessee, West Virginia, Maryland, Oklahoma, and California on one side of the island; the Utah on the other) were lined up in the harbor, sitting ducks for the Japanese to fire upon. Aircraft were parked close together at Hickam and Wheeler Fields, and ammunition was locked up. Much of the blame for the complacency at Pearl Harbor has been laid at the feet of Lieutenant General Walter Short, the Army’s top officer in Hawaii, and Admiral Husband Kimmel, the Navy’s top commander there. Enlisted Army men were sleeping in, perhaps after a Saturday night of partying, while sailors were just getting up and into their normal routines—raising the flags to the tune of the Star-Spangled Banner and swabbing the decks.

Back in the continental U.S., the surprise nature of the attack defined life for the next four years. Ordinary citizens could recall exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard about Pearl Harbor. The next day, though, lines at recruiting stations were around the block. Sacrifices were required—food was rationed so that troops might eat well. Oil, metal, tires, and the like were diverted to the war effort.

Pvt. Thomas M. Wright of the 18th Squadron, 17th Air Base Group, at Hickam Field, was one of the more than 2,400 souls lost that day. Thomas is memorialized at the Honolulu Memorial, National Cemetery of the Pacific, in Plot M, Grave 544. Thomas received posthumously the Purple Heart.
Honolulu Memorial

Overview of the Honolulu Memorial in Hawaii. Courtesy American Battle Monuments Commission

Article prepared by Patricia Richards McClure
October 2017

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Thomas Monroe Wright

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