Veterans reconnect after five decades

March 11, 2014
From left, Washington natives Robert Yaros and James Wright served in the military together but lost contact after leaving the service. That changed last week.

Irma Gray was shocked to see a 1950s-era photo of her older brother and his friend on the front page of the Observer-Reporter’s local section last Thursday.

The article was titled “Veteran searches for long-lost friend,” and thanks to Gray, it didn’t take long for her brother, James Wright, to be found. Wright and Robert Yaros, both Washington natives, served in the Army together in 1953 but lost touch after they returned home from Trieste, Italy, and moved around the country.

When Yaros found a box of black-and-white photos from Wright’s wedding in Washington, D.C., he set out to find his old friend and fellow veteran.

Yaros phoned every Wright in the Washington phone book but did not realize Wright had a sister in the area. Gray, 79, of North Franklin Township, was pleased to play a role in their reunion.

“Honestly, I was so shocked to see it, and surprised and happy for Jim because I knew the two of them were very, very close,” Gray said.

In addition to Gray, the Observer-Reporter was contacted by Wright’s cousin and a Good Samaritan in Monongahela who just wanted to help track down Wright. Less than a week after the article was published, Wright and Yaros spoke on the phone for the first time in more than 50 years.

“It just sounded like it wasn’t that many years all of a sudden,” Yaros, 84, of Defiance, Ohio, said of his phone conversation with Wright. “He sounded the same. We talked about things that we both had gone through, and it was a pleasant experience really for me, and it sounded like the same thing for him.”

The timing was serendipitous for both Yaros and Wright.

Yaros just celebrated his birthday last week and was “overjoyed” to learn that Wright and his wife, Jean (Benedict), also originally from Washington, are now living in Gilbert, Ariz.

Wright, 82, and his wife, 80, celebrated their 61st wedding anniversary last Wednesday.

They talked about their wedding in the nation’s capital, fondly remembering how Yaros and his now-deceased wife, Hazel, tagged along for the ceremony.

“It was just amazing that the next day it was in the paper,” Wright said.

After graduating from high school, both men joined the U.S. Army Reserve in Washington. They were assigned to a transportation unit on West Chestnut Street and completed basic training at Camp Breckinridge, Ky. With deployment quickly approaching, Wright and Jean decided to get married.

Wright laughed while remembering the frazzled and spontaneous nature of his wedding day. He said they initially went to the wrong building for their marriage license, and Jean changed her clothes in the courthouse. They went to the home address of a minister, and he wasn’t there, but they found him at a nearby church and he agreed to perform the ceremony.

“We were married, and we went to lunch and all this in probably an hour,” Wright said. “We never said a word to anybody.”

That is, until later that evening when telegrams were sent to their parents. The two married couples did some sightseeing and headed home because then “it was back to New York to get on the ship and head overseas,” Yaros said.

Both Yaros and Wright were deployed to Trieste, which Yaros described as “a strip of land about two miles wide and 16 miles long” in northern Italy, near Yugoslavia, that was an important spot in the struggle between the Eastern and Western blocs after World War II.

Despite the small area, Yaros and Wright lost touch. Yaros was assigned to the 351st Infantry as a motor corporal, while Wright served in the heavy mortar company. After 18 months in Trieste, they both returned to Washington and saw each other a couple more times.

Wright recalled a metal can opener that he used to open paint cans while helping to paint the Montgomery Ward building where Hazel worked.

“I still have the darn thing,” Wright said of the can opener – now memorabilia from one of the last times he saw Yaros. He joked that he might mail it to him.

The two men lost touch when Yaros moved away from Washington to focus on his business career and eventually settled in Ohio. Wright also moved around and settled in Arizona to work for Motorola in the government electronics department.

Reconnected at last, Yaros and Wright hope they can again meet in person. “We’ll be talking quite a bit more now,” Yaros said.

Emily Petsko joined the Observer-Reporter as a staff writer in June 2013. She graduated from Point Park University with a dual bachelor's degree in journalism and global cultural studies.

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