Jack Wright became a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps shortly after World War II erupted in Europe in 1939. He was assigned to the 19th General Hospital after he was drafted on Sept. 18, 1940.
“I started out to be a medic, but ended up being a cook thanks to me buddy,” said the 87-year-old resident of Holiday Heights mobile home park in Englewood. “‘You don’t want to be a medic; you want to be a cook — so go sign up for cooking,'” he quoted his friend and saying.
Wright took his friend’s advice. He conned his way to the head of a line of 100 soldiers with similar ideas of going to cooking school.
“I had a pencil and paper in my hand as I walked to the head of the line. Nobody said a word because they apparently thought I was holding official orders that put me first in the line,” he said with a smile almost 70 years later.
He was stationed at an Army base 15 miles outside the port city of Liverpool during his first assignment.
“I worked in the kitchen of the men’s mess, during my first assignment,” Wright said. “It was December 1940 and the Germans had bombed Liverpool to hell. Almost every night, we’d see bombs being dropped by the Luftwaffe on the city.”
Liverpool was one of England’s major ports. It was badly damaged in the “Blitz.”
A year later, while serving in the Royal Victoria Military Hospital at Netley Abbey, Wright was switched back into nursing after spending his first months in the service as a cook.
The huge hospital was built during the reign of Queen Victoria in the mid-18th century, about the time of the Crimean War. During World War I, some 50,000 soldiers were treated at the hospital. Before the end of WWII, the Americans took charge of the massive hospital. In an 18-month period, at the close of the war, 68,000 American G.I.s passed through its doors.
“I had been posted to the senior officers’ mess. The lowest rank was a major,” he said. “Then I was posted to the wards as a medic.”
Netley Abbey, where the hospital is located, was a few miles just outside Southampton. One night, Wright and a fellow medic were walking back to the hospital after spending the evening at several local pubs in Southampton.
While in the pubs, there had been much discussion among bar patrons about the legend of “The Lady in White,” a vision of a young woman on horseback who appears to have ridden out of the Dark Ages. It was the most well-known local folk tale, and she had been the subject of many barroom discussions over the decades.
“It was about midnight and me and a black friend (who also worked as a hospital orderly) were walking the 1 1/2 miles back from the Southampton ferry to Netley Abbey, where the hospital was located,” Wright said. “All of a sudden, a woman wearing a long gown riding on a white horse appeared not 25 feet in front of us.
“I spoke to her but she never answered. Moments later, she disappeared,” he said.
By then, his friend had fled in terror. Neither of them brought up the apparition back in the barracks.
In 1942, Wright was sent overseas as a member of the 21st General Hospital located in Cairo, Egypt. This was before American forces invaded North Africa in November 1942.
British and Commonwealth units were hanging on by their fingertips against German Gen. Erwin Rommel and his North Afrika Korps. “The Desert Fox,” as he would come to be known, was making life miserable for Allied ground forces in North Africa during the early months of 1942 when Wright arrived there.
On his way over to Egypt by ship, he was part of the largest convoy to sail from England during the Second World War. The young medic almost made his fortune playing blackjack with a marked deck of cards during the voyage to the Middle East.
“We had reached the Suez Canal and I had piles and piles of money in front of me. I was absolutely lousy with money,” he recalled. “But I made one mistake and got caught cheating. I thought they were going to throw me overboard, but they didn’t — they just took all my winnings.”
When he arrived in Egypt, he became a “batman” for the lieutenant colonel commanding the largest British hospital in Cairo. It was Wright’s job to maintain the colonel’s clothes, draw his bath and see that his boots were shined.
This got old fast. Wright wanted to see some front line action and convinced his commanding officer to let him go back to the medical corps.
“I was sent to Hospital Train No. 3 as part of a unit that commanded the train. We went from Cairo to Alexandra, Egypt, and from there to Libya,” where his train took a bunch of Australian soldiers aboard who had been German prisoners of war. The other half of the train was filled with Italian POWs.
On the return trip back to Cairo, Wright said he kept both the Australian and the Italian troops fed with hotcakes and tea.
Late in the war, about the time the Germans surrendered in May 1945, he was assigned to a small 20-bed infectious disease hospital built by the British in the Suez Canal Zone. He was treating Africans suffering from leprosy, typhus and typhoid fever in the tiny facility.
“As the patients got better, they helped me treat the others,” Wright said. “I was there until 1946. By then, I had almost put six years in the service.”
He returned to England and got his first peacetime job in a public hospital in Leicester, England, where he worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week, until he had enough and went to work in a hosiery mill making ladies’ nylon stockings.
More than 25 years ago, Wright came to Englewood to visit an English friend with whom he had served during the war. He never returned home and eventually became an American citizen.
Name: Jonathan Wright
Currently: Englewood, Fla.
Entered Service: 18 Sept 1940
This story was first published in the Charlotte Sun newspaper, Port Charlotte, Fla. on Sunday, Sept. 16, 2007 and is republished with permission.
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