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After 77 years, a WWII soldier is brought home to North Carolina for burial

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

In Lumber Bridge, N.C., population 98, a long lost son came home. First Lieutenant James "Dick" Wright was buried this week, and his World War II heroism was honored. Jay Price of member station WUNC reports.

JAY PRICE, BYLINE: Dick Wright's mother Mamie had a recurring vision. She'd be in front of the family farmhouse, tending the marigolds and daffodils she'd planted along their dirt road.

DIANA MERKT: And she would look up and see her son, Dick, walking up to the house from the highway. She always believed he would come home.

PRICE: His great-niece, Diana Merkt, heard that story growing up. Wright's mother couldn't have known that it would take 77 years and help from a gifted amateur historian, anthropologists, DNA experts and a big measure of luck. But Lieutenant Wright was finally brought to the small cemetery spread under some pines where his mother, father and seven of his nine brothers and sisters are buried.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Lieutenant Wright is home. We reunite him to the American soil upon which his house still stands, the soil he once played on as a child and walked on as an adult.

PRICE: A military chaplain officiated. Dick Wright had helped run the farm, worked at a general store in town, led his church's Sunday school and served in the North Carolina National Guard before he was put on active duty. Home was on his mind as his unit fought its way across France in the summer of 1944.

SIDNEY BROOKMAN: (Reading) Darling Peggy, I started a letter to you last Sunday, honey, but didn't get a chance to finish it...

PRICE: At his grave, Wright's great-great-niece Air Force Staff Sergeant Sidney Brookman read from his last letter to his wife and former high school sweetheart Margaret, who he called Peggy. The letters were censored for security and had to leave out details like his location. One thing he couldn't tell - or wouldn't, for fear of overwhelming his wife - was why he was awarded the Silver Star for Valor. He claims not to know.

BROOKMAN: (Reading) I just did my best, and that's all there is to it. Several of my men also received the Bronze Star Medal at the same time. That's a real bunch of real men, the best that there is, I suppose.

PRICE: There was almost a rhythm to the fighting, he said. It would be fierce, and then sometimes they'd be able to rest briefly. It was all worth it, though, when they saw what they meant to the French.

BROOKMAN: (Reading) We have liberated another town this time, a much larger one, and they are the happiest people I've ever seen. They actually handed champagne to us in wheelbarrows, and I never saw such rejoicing in my lifetime. I wish that you could see them.

PRICE: In September, about the time his wife got that letter, his unit was ordered to cross the flood-swollen Moselle River, not far from the German border, but was forced back in fierce fighting. Hundreds of American soldiers were killed, wounded or captured. Many drowned trying to swim to safety. Write his name in your notebook, another soldier told a war correspondent hours after Wright vanished. He's a fighting man. He swam across the river, brought a boat and paddled it back under fire so some of the wounded could get back. What a guy.

BROOKMAN: (Reading) The going is pretty tough at times, but you know me and Yanks can take it. Some lose their lives. Some are injured. Some become sick. And it is altogether just an unpleasant mess. But often the goal is done, the job is done and we feel it's worth it.

PRICE: Months after he vanished, an Army recovery team found two bodies floating in the river. One had dog tags, but the other didn't and was buried in Luxembourg as an unknown. Then, 10 years ago, a break in the case. Newly unearthed evidence offered more clues. Defense Department experts, with the help of a private researcher, eventually made their way to the Wright family and asked for DNA samples. Diana Merkt, herself using a walker at the service, marveled.

MERKT: When you realize that this is really happening, that they found that needle in the haystack, thank God that we were alive to see that he was found. It's just unbelievable.

PRICE: And just in time. Wright's 100-year-old sister Elizabeth, his last surviving sibling, was too weak to travel from her Florida nursing home. Family had to send her photos and videos from the ceremony.

BROOKMAN: (Reading) Well, I have to stop now, though. I will write again as soon as I can. And please don't worry when I don't write. I'll be OK. And I'll be home before you know it.

PRICE: And he finally is. For NPR News, I'm Jay Price in Lumber Bridge, N.C. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.