It Takes a Village….

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To help you understand what your roots are.

On a morning in September 2009 that he will never forget, John C. Wright, a longtime professor of chemistry at UW-Madison, was getting ready to walk from his office to the class he was scheduled to teach when his telephone rang.

That call, and a fax that followed a short time later, directing him to a website, knocked Wright for a loop. He is not an emotional person, but Wright teared up reading an article on the website.

“I was astonished,” he said recently. He needed a little walk to calm down before teaching his class.

What Wright, 67, learned that September morning set in motion a series of events that culminated last month when he and his family flew to England for the unveiling ceremony of a memorial plaque honoring the father Wright never knew.

That father — U.S. Army Air Corps Flight Officer John E. Wright — died in a fiery plane crash on Oct. 25, 1944, in the English village of Jacobs Well, on the northern outskirts of Guildford, the county town of Surrey. Three other U.S. airmen died with him.

Wright was 13 months old when his father died. His devastated mother asked for the body be buried in England and requested no further information on the death — details which might not have been forthcoming in any case. Within two years, she had remarried.

Wright grew up knowing only that his father had died in a crash, and that he was buried at the American Cemetery in Cambridge. Wright knew nothing further, and — until that phone call last year — he certainly didn’t realize that the village where his father died was determined not to forget him.

Two men in particular, English historian Frank Phillipson and journalist David Rose, spent several years unearthing the story of the Lilly Bell II — the name of the C-47 Dakota aircraft that crashed that day in southern England — and its crew.

John Edmund Wright was the co-pilot on the Lilly Bell, which was named for the wife of the pilot, Mercer Wilson Avent.

Wright grew up in the village of Nichols, New York, and attended Cornell University. He met Jean Love, a school teacher, in Nichols. They married after his 1942 enlistment in the air corps and traveled to various bases during John’s training. Their son — John Curtis Wright — was born while John was stationed in Lubbock, Texas.

Wright graduated from flight school in Lubbock in December 1943 and soon went overseas. Jean went back to Nichols with their baby.

Wright sent home letters from the war, dispatches his son would later read. “He was always asking himself, ‘Am I brave?’” the son recalled.

Wright was clearly brave. Among other missions he participated in the D-Day invasion of Normandy, piloting a glider filled with troops.

His Normandy service earned Wright the Air Medal for outstanding gallantry. “Magnificent spirit,” the medal citation read, “combined with skill, courage and devotion to duty.”

The morning of Oct. 25, 1944, Wright was co-piloting the Lilly Bell II. It had a load of cargo and was scheduled to fly from an airfield near Berkshire to another in northern France. The rest of the crew consisted of Avent, the pilot, John Hillmer, the flight engineer, and Dale Dellinger, the radio operator.

There were other planes in formation with the Lilly Bell II and the accounts of those airmen had the Lilly Bell II attempting a rapid climb through a low ceiling of clouds to avoid the North Downs, a ridge of chalk hills in southeast England.

Perhaps the engine stalled. It’s also possible the cargo load broke loose and hurtled to the back of the plane. In any case the Lilly Bell flipped, plummeted and slammed to earth. It was soon engulfed by fire. The airmen, all dead, were badly burned.

In Nichols, Jean Love Wright received a personal visit from a military representative, followed by a telegram via Western Union: “THE SECRETARY OF WAR ASKS THAT I ASSURE YOU OF HIS DEEP SYMPATHY…”

She moved with her baby, John, to Lancaster, Pa., where she eventually fell in love with a man who came to do repairs on her home. They married and had four children.

Six decades later, it was one of those children, John Wright’s half-sister Joan Kyle, who phoned him at his office in Madison in September 2009. She had learned that Phillipson, the English historian, was looking for John E. Wright’s extended family, and she was able to have a letter from Phillipson faxed to Wright in Madison. The fax led Wright to a website that included a 2009 article by David Rose that told the whole story of the crash of the Lilly Bell II. Wright was overwhelmed.

Soon, Wright was corresponding with Phillipson, who told him a group in Guildford was hoping to establish a memorial for the plane’s crew. Wright said he would like to contribute. Phillipson said they wouldn’t hear of it. Instead, he extended an invitation for Wright, his wife, Carol, and their children to come to the memorial’s dedication, where a plaque honoring the airmen would be unveiled.

The ceremony was last month, Oct. 17, at the crash site in Jacobs Well. Phillipson shies away from public speaking, but Rose, the journalist, told the story of their research and how they had found pieces of the plane embedded in the field.

Wright, who personally unveiled the plaque, was presented with a mounted piece of the Lilly Bell II. Speaking at the ceremony, he was, again, uncharacteristically emotional. Getting out of his car, a local woman had come out of one of the houses, shaken his hand and thanked him.

Back in Madison, a few weeks later, Wright was still moved. “In one year,” he said, “I’ve gone from knowing nothing to having a piece of the plane. It’s pretty remarkable.”

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