History in Focus: Hans Wright: Killed by kamikaze
Behind the jungle warfare and naval battles of the South Pacific was a vast web of logistics, supply lines, and humans keeping the fighting forces supplied and armed; 2,711 “Liberty” ships were pumped out of American factories and carried out this unheralded work. Aboard the Liberty ship, SS Thomas Nelson, Craig’s Hans Wright, a B-25 gunner by training, was fatally wounded and died three days later.
On Feb. 2, 1945, a short blurb in the Craig Empire Courier announced Hans Wright had died on Nov. 15, 1944, from wounds received near Leyte Gulf, Philippines. It was a shock to the family, since they had been notified on Christmas Eve his wounds were not serious.
Hans was born in Craig in 1924. His father, Ben, was was an energetic man and owner of the Suitatorium, a men’s clothing store. Ben served on the town board in the early 1920s, constructed a new downtown building in 1926 (at the current location of Jungle Pet Store) and even started a delivery service to outlying hamlets and homesteaders. In 1927, he sponsored a men’s baseball team, the Clothiers, that battled Rifle for the Western Slope title.
The Great Depression hit Craig hard, and the Suitatorium was one of its casualties. In 1931, after a huge close-out sale, the Suitatorium closed its doors, and after about 20 years in Craig, the Wrights, along with young Hans, headed to Grand Junction, then Denver. At this point, we lose sight of Hans and his family. After leaving Craig, Ben and Josephine were divorced.
When the war called, Hans entered the Army Air Corps and became a gunner in the 345th Bomb Group, nicknamed the “Air Apaches.” Flying reconfigured B-25’s with up to 14 .50 caliber machine guns, the plane was nicknamed “the strafer” for flying dangerous, low-altitude missions to wipe out Japanese forces.
By late 1944, U.S. troops landed at the island of Leyte. Hans and fellow members of the Air Apaches boarded a group of “Liberty” ships for transport from New Guinea to set up bases and begin missions on the Philippines. In a twist of fate, Hans stepped onto the SS Thomas Nelson.
The slow-moving convoy finally arrived at Leyte in early November. Stalled construction of airstrips and quarters forced the airmen of the 345th to wait on the liberty ships. Loaded with men and materiel, six liberty ships anchored in Dulag harbor became targets for one of the first appearances of the fanatical suicide kamikaze pilots, the so-called “Divine Wind.”
On Nov. 12, about lunchtime, a group of 10 Japanese zeroes appeared on the horizon and targeted the relatively defenseless liberty ships. Weaving its way through a thin veil of 20 mm gun fire, a zero slammed into the aft of the Thomas Nelson. The fiery explosion ripped into the number four hold, the quarters for Wright’s squadron, the 498th Falcons. Trapped in the hold next to a load of ammunition, men on the Thomas Nelson worked frantically to save the ship and rescue the men. Hans was rescued but died of his wounds three days later.
One hundred, sixty eight men aboard the Thomas Nelson were sacrificed due to stalled logistics and one kamikaze. Amazingly, the SS Thomas Nelson returned to the U.S. for repairs and made it through the war. In 1949, Wright’s remains were buried at the Santa Fe National Cemetery, and his name is memorialized on the WWII statue behind the VFW.
On a cool autumn afternoon in 1914 Hayden, a human being was seen occupying space previously reserved for only birds, clouds and celestial bodies. It was a monumental occasion — one that shook the very fiber of reality for the people of Northwest Colorado.