By William Swaim, Wyandotte Nation
As Velva (Wright) Spoon lay weak in the hospital bed, her left hand reached up, clutching the hand of her sister, Helen (Wright) Harper.
With the other hand she tightly gripped her Cousin Deryl Wright’s hand.
Her daughter, Ilene, stood by her bedside with a hand on her shoulder.
The last 24 hours had been an emotional ride for the 96-year old Wyandotte Nation tribal citizen. Only a day had passed since she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Doctors at Mercy Hospital in Joplin, Mo., told the family there was no cure. She only had a few weeks to live.
Now, just a day later, with family and friends surrounding her, Velva’s emotional journey was about to take another turn.
This journey didn’t start 24 hours earlier, but nearly 60 years ago when her younger brother, William Henry Wright, Jr., went missing in action and was later presumed dead, reportedly killed during a fierce battle in the Korean War. His remains were never recovered.
For 60 years the family sought answers, writing letter after letter to the U.S. military, only to be stonewalled about the circumstances surrounding his death.
While the family may never know the official details surrounding his death, they were able to at least receive some closure, as William’s medals, which were stolen from his brother Loren years before, were reissued and presented to the family once again just two days after Memorial Day.
For Velva, of Wyandotte, Okla., the moment was a whirlwind of emotion, as she went from sadness to the comfort of knowing the medals recognizing William’s sacrifice were in the family’s possession once again. For her, she said, it was relief as she lives out the last few days of her life, knowing her time would come soon to join her brothers.
“It took over 60 years to have closure, but we have it,” Velva said.
The moment may have never happened after all these years had several factors not played out.
It started with the dying wish of Velva’s brother, Loren, when he passed away Feb. 3.
Among the Missing
E-5 Sgt. William Henry Wright, Jr., an enrolled member of the Wyandotte Nation, was the son of William Henry “Bill” Wright, Sr. and Julie Anna Lamar, and the grandson of James Michael Wright and Mary Dawson. He was born March 19, 1927, in Neosho, Mo.
William answered the call to serve his country on Aug. 6, 1948, leaving life on the farm in Neosho to join the Army, just two years before hostilities broke out in Korea.
He graduated from basic training at Fort Knox, Ky., and then learned to become a Light Weapons Infantryman at Fort Lawton, Wash.
What the military records do show is that William was later assigned to the 17th Infantry Regiment in Japan before being transferred to the 27th Infantry Regiment. His unit was sent to Korea to help defend the troops holding on to the Pusan Peninsula.
The unit later breached the 38th parallel and pushed the North Koreans all the way back to the Yalu River.
The Chinese 13th Army then entered the battle, launching a series of surprise attacks along the Chongchon River on the night of Nov. 25, 1950. American and South Korean lines were smashed and a battle ensued, causing a systematic retreat as United Nation forces endured heavy losses.
On Nov. 28, 1950, William went missing in action during the Battle of the Chongchon River. His status was changed from MIA to presumed dead on Dec. 31, 1953.
His brother Loren shipped to Korea the same day William was declared MIA. Loren later spoke to a fellow soldier of William who believed he saw him killed, taking a direct hit while fighting the enemy.
The only information regarding the circumstances of their brother’s death came from the soldier’s recount.
Sherri Clemons, the Wyandotte Nation Tribal Heritage Director, said it is believed William is the only enrolled Wyandotte Nation tribal member to ever be declared MIA.
Velva and Helen sent dozens of letters requesting information on their brother’s death. The only response they received was “we’ll let you know when we find out anything.”
What information that may have been available, was believed burned during a July 1973 fire at the National Personnel Records Center. The fire damaged or destroyed millions of personnel files, including William’s.
A Brother’s Dying Wish
Just about three months before Deryl was at the bedside of Velva, he was at Loren’s bedside. Loren was also terminally ill with cancer.
“I asked him, ‘is there anything I can do? Anything I can do to help?’ He laid there silent for a minute and said, ‘there really is something you can do. You can get my brother’s medals and put them in the Wyandotte Nation museum,’” Deryl recounted. “I said, ‘Loren, I will get them.’”
He said Loren was in possession of the medals at one time, but they were stolen and he never got them back. “I think he felt some guilt about that.”
Loren passed away a short time later.
Deryl was determined to not let the dying wish go unresolved. After talking to the Veterans Administration in Arkansas, he was basically told his chances were “slim and none” to get William’s medals reissued, especially after many of his records were lost in the fire regarding his service.
He was advised to get someone to help.
Deryl said he next went to U.S. Senator John Boozman (R-Ark). “He told me he would help me get them. And he did.”
He said the plan was to present the medals at the Wyandotte Nation’s Annual Meeting in September to the eldest member of the family, Velva, who would then give the medals to the tribe.
The plan changed with Velva’s diagnosis. Deryl had stopped into the Senator’s office on May 29 to inform them of Velva’s condition and was talking to Lt. Colonel (Ret) Steve Gray. Gray said he would have no problem presenting the medals to her that day.
From there, Deryl contacted Clemons and Wyandotte Nation Second Chief Norman Hildebrand, Jr. The Wyandotte Nation arranged to have a member of the Honor Guard present for the impromptu ceremony at the hospital.
Second Chief Hildebrand and Ted Nesvold, of the Wyandotte Nation Honor Guard, were present with the Wright family when Lt. Colonel Gray made the presentation of medals – just several hours after the meeting in the Senator’s office.
For nearly 60 years after William’s presumed death, the family searched for answers. In just a few short months after Loren lost his battle with cancer, the family found a semblance of closure.
“We finally got the closure we needed,” Helen said.
Lt. Colonel Gray presented Velva with the medals, which included the United Nations Service Medal for Korea, the Korean War Service Medal with Bronze Star Service Device, National Defense Service Medal, and The Purple Heart. The medals will be presented again at the Wyandotte Nation’s Annual Meeting in September.
Loren’s son, Michael, was one of the family members present for the May 29 ceremony.
“I know my dad is happy today because he wanted this to happen so badly,” Michael said.
Gray also presented a letter to the family from Sen. Boozman, who was unable to attend.
The last lines of Sen. Boozman’s letter read: “Today we pause, reflect, honor, and pay tribute for his sacrifice by bestowing these symbols of a grateful nation. He was truly a member of the greatest generation.”
The moment was an emotional one for the family as a journey that began nearly 60 years ago when their brother died, finally came to rest.
“It’s such a relief. This would not have been possible… we could not have done this without this man,” Velva said, grabbing Deryl’s hand.
For Deryl, it wasn’t just one person’s effort.
“It was everyone working together. It was the family, Sen. Boozman, the hospital, the Wyandotte Nation, all working together,” he said. “I mean, how do you thank all the people who made it happen? It wasn’t an ‘I,’ it was an ‘us.’
“For me to see Velva and Helen get those medals, it was a very settling moment. They had been waiting most of their lives for this to happen.”
Velva is now living out her last days under Hospice care at her home in the Wyandotte Nation senior housing development in Wyandotte.