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John David Wright
Young American Patriots

West Virginia Veterans Memorial


John David Wright

"Today we may say aloud before an awe-struck world: �We are still masters of our fate. We are still captain of our souls."

Winston Churchill

John David Wright was born on February 2, 1917, to James Rufus and Gertrude Rice Wright in Wilsonburg, West Virginia, a small community near Clarksburg in Harrison County. In 1920, the census-taker recorded the Wright family of five living in Harrison County. In the household were Mr. Wright, a motorman with the railway, and Mrs. Wright, and their three sons and one daughter, Raymond, Marguerite, James, and John. In 1930, their situation was virtually unchanged. Mr. Wright was a brakeman with the railroad, and the family were still all together.

In 1935, John Wright graduated from Victory High School in Clarksburg. A website is maintained to preserve the history of the high school, which operated from 1917 into 1973. John Wright's name is recorded with the class of 1935. ("Student List," Victory High School, accessed 26 January 2020,

In 1936, James Rufus Wright died of leukemia. At the time of his death, he was a brakeman for the B&O Railroad. In 1940, the family was still together in the same house as it had been in 1935, but Marguerite's husband, Frank McGahan, was recorded as the head of the household. Raymond, James, John, and their mother Gertrude were living there, and they were joined by the McGahans' son David. Frank McGahan worked in the glass tumbler factory, as did Raymond and John. This was a common workplace listing for people in Clarksburg because it was the location of the Hazel Atlas Glass Company. (Dean Six, "Hazel Atlas Glass Company," e-WV: The West Virginia Encyclopedia, 6 February 2019, accessed 26 January 2020,

John Wright married I. Edna Forinash Whaley on December 6, 1941, in Winchester, Virginia. He was 24 and single, and she was 22 and a widow. He entered military service on July 8, 1942, in Fort Eustis, Virginia. According to his entry in Young American Patriots, John Wright was stationed at Alameda Air Station in Berkeley, California, and then saw action in England and Europe. John Wright was assigned to Company A, 264th Infantry, 66th Infantry Division.

On Christmas Eve, 1944, the 66th Infantry Division was headed for France to replenish the troops engaged in the Battle of the Bulge. Near France, in the English Channel, the ship in which they were transported was hit by a torpedo fired from German U-Boat 486. Sergeant John Wright was with them, and his name is found among the passengers of the SS Leopoldville, a Belgian transport ship.

A detailed account of the sinking of the troop transport Leopoldville is told in Part 9 of The Sea Hunters: True Adventures with Famous Shipwrecks (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003, 2nd ed., pp. 305-325). Adventure novelist Clive Cussler and his co-author Craig Dirgo write compellingly about the tragedy as they weave a tale of fact and supposition about the events that led to the loss of the ship. It is a story of an operation gone wrong, fraught with disorganization, miscommunication, confusion, and chaos. Intended to reinforce troops exhausted by and decimated in the Battle of the Bulge, the 262nd and 264th Regiments of the U.S. infantry finally received orders on December 23 to move out from Southampton, England, to Cherbourg, France. The Leopoldville and another troop transport, the Cheshire, began boarding at 0200 hours on the 24th. According to Cussler et al.,

Originally a Belgian passenger liner, the Leopoldville had been under charter to the British Admiralty since the beginning of the war. Though the Leopoldville had been retrofitted to be a troop ship, it had a tired and worn appearance to the troops. The ship was under the command of Flemish Captain Charles Limbor, who had spent a quarter century with the Belgian Lines and was considered a quiet, but competent, seaman. The Leopoldville had crossed the Channel many times and transported many troops without incident. But this crossing would be different. There was no great enthusiasm among the men for moving into the European theater; after all, it had been more than six months since D-Day, and many assumed that the action was winding down. Skipping a partially prepared Christmas dinner, they were rushed onto the boats and then had a lengthy wait before setting sail. Boarding was particularly chaotic; first, a company of paratroopers had been boarded and then taken off. Cussler calls the boarding "a further omen of the tragedy to come" (p. 307). The two regiments were mixed together, and instead of boarding by platoon, the men simply boarded in the order in which they appeared. There was no plan for providing sleeping space for the troops, despite the fact that they would be on ship for eighteen hours before disembarking. In addition, they had not been trained in how to launch the ship's lifeboats or how to wear lifejackets.

The Leopoldville had never before crossed in a zigzag fashion, but was ordered to do so this time because of known submarine activity. At about 1754 hours, the ship suffered a torpedo strike. Most of the men in the lower compartments were lost at this time, but a few escaped and made it to the upper deck. Among the survivors of the initial strike, there seemed to be little panic. But then a series of miscommunications began. Captain Limbor assumed they were sinking swiftly and ordered all but essential crew to abandon ship. Abandon ship they did-the American troops watched in shock as the Belgian and Congolese crew left ahead of them on the lifeboats. Cussler calls the behavior of the troops waiting on deck for rescue "one of the finest examples of discipline ever observed." He adds: "All stood in blind obedience awaiting orders that never came" (p. 322). Though rescue ships would eventually come from Cherbourg, they were in no hurry to get to the ship due to the delay in communications. And because of Christmas celebrations, the rescue ships were lightly manned. The loudspeaker was no longer working, so Captain Limbor walked around the ship giving orders to the remaining men-in French or Flemish-which added to the confusion about launching lifeboats.

Men began jumping into the icy water of the Channel in full gear; they did not know to divest themselves of their heavy clothing and gear and did not know how to activate their life jackets. Of those who did not die of hypothermia in the water, some died ashore at Cherbourg because medics overlooked signs of life. While 1,400 infantrymen had survived, nearly 800 U.S. infantry were dead.

Although the German media broadcast details of the sinking as early as January 7, 1945, a month passed before it was acknowledged in U.S. newspapers, and even then it appears that the account was deliberately inaccurate. On January 25, the Philadelphia Inquirer Washington bureau quoted Secretary of War Henry Stimson as saying "the ship sank swiftly. . . and 248 men were killed and 517 are missing. The rest, over 1400, were saved."

We now know, of course, that the ship did not sink swiftly, and the missing men were, in fact, dead. Subsequent investigations criticized Commander John Pringle, Commander of the Brilliant, lead ship of the convoy. Pringle received an official reprimand, but was allowed to continue his naval career. Captain Limbor, the only officer not to survive the sinking, went down with the Leopoldville. Investigations also faulted him and his crew: He failed to accurately assess the damage to the ship; had he done so, he would have known they were sinking slowly, not rapidly. The ship could have been towed. He could have facilitated better communication with the troops and given better instructions for using lifeboats and other equipment.

There were a number of reasons for the cover-up of the actual details of the sinking, one having to do with maintaining the morale of the troops. The silence was comparable to that which withheld details concerning the losses during the Battle of the Bulge, potentially demoralizing and embarrassing the Allied forces at the time.

Of the nearly 800 U.S. troops who perished on the Leopoldville, 493 were never recovered. Of those who were recovered, many are still interred in Sainte-Mere-Eglise or Normandy American Cemetery, even though in 1947 the United States allowed their families to bring them to the states for burial. (Summary based on Part 9 of the Cussler/Dirgo book and Tonya Allen's article "The Sinking of the SS Leopoldville," accessed 11 November 2011,

Sgt. Wright's body was one of those recovered. His remains were returned to the United States in July 1948 and interred in Clarksburg on August 1, 1948. The headstone was found in Greenlawn Cemetery near Clarksburg.
Now weathered, Sgt. Wrights' headstone in Greenlawn Cemetery reads: John D. Wright/West Virginia/Sgt. 264 Inf 66 Div/World War II/ Feb. 2, 1917 - Dec. 25, 1944. Courtesy Cynthia Mullens

Now weathered, Sgt. Wrights' headstone in Greenlawn Cemetery reads: John D. Wright/West Virginia/Sgt. 264 Inf 66 Div/World War II/ Feb. 2, 1917 - Dec. 25, 1944. Courtesy Cynthia Mullens

Sgt. Wright was awarded a Purple Heart, Good Conduct Medal, Victory Medal, and the European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal.

Article prepared by Cynthia Mullens and Patricia McClure
February 2020


John David Wright

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