While just a young woman in her 20s, Athena Wright signed up to serve in one of the most brutal theaters of World War II. There, she fought to defeat the Axis powers in the South Pacific, eventually returning home a hero. Now, almost 80 years later, she has celebrated her 105th birthday – and her local community has certainly risen to the occasion.
Like many born in the early half of the 20th century, Wright lived through some of the most turbulent times in modern history. An infant during World War I, she survived the deadly pandemic that came after the horrors of the battlefield. And by the time that the next global conflict rolled around, she was ready to join the fight.
At the time, war was still considered very much a man’s game. For women like Wright, then, opportunities were limited on the front line. But she resolved to find a way to serve her country, a determination which led her to the wilds of New Guinea and beyond. And even now, five years past her 100th birthday, she looks back on the experience with pride.
So how did Wright’s hometown of Scottsdale, Arizona, decide to mark the veteran’s 105th year? Of course, it was clear that no ordinary birthday party would do. So officials set about orchestrating an epic celebration in honor of the woman who has been called a “living legend.” And the people are unlikely to forget it any time soon.
Wright’s story, as it turns out, actually began more than 2,500 miles east of Scottsdale, on the other side of the United States. Born in the small town of Oxford, Massachusetts, on August 25, 1915, she came into the world a year after the outbreak of World War I. At that time, though, the conflict was mostly confined to Europe, far away from her North American home.
Sadly, that was not to remain the case for long. When Wright was just 18 months old, the U.S. entered World War I, and many young men left the country to fight. And while we do not know whether or not the young girl’s family were directly affected, it is certain that the shadow of war would have loomed over her early childhood.
After a time, Wright graduated from high school and decided to pursue a career as a nurse. But she didn’t stick around in small-town Oxford for long. Instead, she traveled southwest to find work in the great metropolis of New York City. Back then, it would have been a thrilling place, the skyline filled with new, gleaming skyscrapers such as the Empire State Building and the Rockefeller Center.
But Wright, it seems, was not destined to settle in New York. In September 1939 another great conflict broke out, beginning in Europe and soon spreading across much of Asia. In the U.S., meanwhile, debate raged over what role the American armed forces should play in this ongoing war.
For Wright at least, that role was clear. And in September 1941 she signed up to the U.S. Army Nurse Corps, serving as a second lieutenant. Many years later, reporters would ask what inspired her to enlist, even before the attack of Pearl Harbor drew America inexorably into World War II.
According to the Arizona news outlet KPNX, Wright saw the men around her signing up to fight for the Allies in the seemingly imminent war. A single woman at the time, she decided to play her part. While she could not do battle on the front line, she reasoned, the soldiers were still going to need medical attention and care.
“They are going to get sick,” Wright recalled thinking, according to an August 2020 interview with KPNX. “They are going to get hurt. Somebody’s got to take care of them. So, I said, ‘I’ll go.’” After a stint at Fort DuPont in Delaware, the young nurse was posted to a medical unit in Australia in 1942.
By that time, of course, the U.S. was no longer hesitating over its role in this global war. On December 7, 1941, the Japanese had launched a surprise attack on an American military base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, resulting in thousands of casualties. And with that, any public opposition to the conflict had faded away.
Just one day later, America declared war on the Empire of Japan and, by implication, their allies in Nazi Germany. Now Wright and her fellow countrymen were embroiled in what would become the deadliest conflict that the world has ever seen. In the Pacific Theater, where the young nurse would eventually be posted, things initially seemed to swing in favor of the Axis powers.
Indeed, in the immediate aftermath of Pearl Harbor, Japanese forces succeeded in conquering vast swathes of the Pacific, including Guam and Hong Kong. And throughout the early months of 1942, the Axis powers added the Dutch East Indies, Singapore, Malaya, Burma and the Philippines to their ever-growing list. But in June 1942, the tide of the war began to change.
That month, keen to deliver another blow to the Allies, the Japanese launched an attack on the U.S. naval base on Midway Atoll in the Pacific. But this time, the Americans were prepared. And after three days of fighting, the invading troops were forced to retreat with much of their fleet damaged beyond repair.
Today, the Battle of Midway is considered one of the most decisive naval campaigns in history. And with the American victory, the Allies began to regain control of the region. In the midst of all this fighting, Wright left Australia to take up a post on the Pacific island of New Guinea, where another complex campaign had been raging since January 1942.
According to Wright’s daughter Diane, the nurse, still just in her 20s, was assigned to the 18th Station Hospital, an outpost in the jungles of New Guinea. And there she would have borne witness to one of the toughest campaigns of the entire conflict. In his 1986 book Brassey’s Battles, the Australian historian John Laffin called it “arguably the most arduous fought by any Allied troops during World War II.”
In the end, the New Guinea campaign would prove to be one of the most drawn-out campaigns of the war. And for many months, Wright served in the heart of the action, tending to the wounded with little thought for her own personal safety. Then, against this backdrop of violence and chaos, she fell in love.
In the Pacific, Wright met the man who would become her husband, a major serving in the U.S. Medical Corps. In time, they married and the young nurse fell pregnant with Diane. But although she returned from the Pacific and retired from active duty in 1944, even that was not the end of her military adventure.
In recognition of her service, Wright was awarded two Bronze Stars, acknowledging heroic achievements in a combat zone. And the year after her retirement, the Allies won the war, returning peace to much of the western world. Eventually, the nurse and her husband relocated to Washington, D.C., where he took a job working for the Veterans Administration.
For Wright, that meant a chance to return to her passion of military nursing. At the city’s Mount Alto Veterans Hospital, she spent 17 years caring for American servicemen and women who had been injured in the line of duty. After that, she worked at the National Institutes of Health until she retired and moved to Scottsdale, AZ.
In the century since Wright was born, the world has undergone some pretty drastic changes. As well as surviving both world wars, the now-105-year-old has seen two pandemics, the Great Depression and a wealth of life-altering technological advances. But against all the odds, she has survived to become one of Scottsdale’s best-loved residents.
So when the time came to celebrate Wright’s 105th birthday in August 2020, it must have seemed clear that something pretty special needed to happen. After all, the former nurse is considered a legend in her adoptive hometown. But with the added stresses of another pandemic, how could the city organize an appropriate celebration?
By that time, Wright was living in Pueblo Norte Assisted Living Facility, a retirement village in the north of the city. So her friends and family, along with a team of Scottsdale officials, worked together to create a birthday party worthy of such a momentous occasion. What they eventually came up with, happily, would leave the veteran stunned.
To mark Wright’s 105th birthday, the group decided to honor her like a true war hero with an extensive parade. And as if that wasn’t enough, Scottsdale’s Vice Mayor Solange Whitehead had another trick up her sleeve. During the proceedings, she would declare August 25, 2020, to be Athena Wright Day.
As the day approached, according to KPNX, Wright had begun to suspect that a parade was in the works. But she could never have guessed the scale of the event that was about to unfold. On the morning of the 25th, the veteran’s friends and family arrived at Pueblo Norte and prepared to drive a procession of vehicles through the community.
But they were not the only people who wanted to wish Wright many happy returns. Joining them, it seems, were representatives from the Scottsdale fire department, the police department and the library – and even from the solid waste and water department. And as the assembled crowd paraded through the facility, the 105-year-old watched them from a seat outside her home.
Eventually, the event culminated in a heartwarming speech, during which Wright encouraged others to take up equally selfless endeavors. And as she received resounding applause, an organizer took the microphone, declaring, “We are in the presence of a living legend.” If the crowd’s response was anything to go by, the people of Scottsdale agree.
In video footage of the event, one man could be seen waving a handmade placard reading “HAPPY BIRTHDAY.” And when Wright concluded her speech, a male voice called out, “Wait ’til next year!” Clearly, the veteran has plenty of fans in Scottsdale – which is hardly surprising given her heroic exploits during World War II.
So what did Wright think of it all? Speaking to KPNX, she said, “I knew I was going to have a parade, but nothing like this.” And she’s not the only veteran to have been treated to an outlandish celebration in honor of a landmark birthday. In September 2019, for example, it was the turn of Lawrence Brooks, who is thought to be the oldest American to have fought in World War II.
Coincidentally, Brooks, like Wright, also fought in Australia and New Guinea as the Allies wrestled the Axis powers for control of the Pacific. Then, years later, he faced another life-threatening challenge when his New Orleans home was threatened by Hurricane Katrina. Speaking to the BBC in September 2019 the veteran discussed the devastating impact of the natural disaster.
“Hurricane Katrina took everything I own,” Brooks explained. “Wash away everything. I survived that too. The lord was just good to me.” Whether his good fortune is really the result of divine intervention we may never know, but the veteran has certainly been blessed with a long life. And that September, he was gearing up to celebrate his 110th birthday.
When the big day came, a party was held for Brooks at the World War II Museum in his home city of New Orleans. Asked by a reporter how he planned to top the celebrations in the next year, he replied, “I don’t know; I’m going to work on it.” And when prompted, he admitted that he had no plans of “stopping here.”
As it turns out, Brooks’ confidence was well founded. In September 2020 he celebrated his 111th birthday, this time with a more intimate gathering in the vicinity of his front porch. Meanwhile, another veteran over in the Florida city of Delray Beach was preparing to mark his own centennial year.
Like Wright, Raymond D’Allesandro also faced celebrating his milestone birthday while the world was in the grip of a pandemic. But even so, his community organized a parade in his honor. On November 21, 2020, a number of the veteran’s family and friends – along with some total strangers – gathered to pay their respects.
Having left Italy for New York at just 16 years old, D’Allesandro was posted to Algeria during World War II, where he served as a sergeant. Eventually, he returned to the U.S., where he spent time as a railroad worker. Speaking to the local news network WPTV, the veteran’s daughter Carol explained that her father had always planned on reaching a ripe old age.
“He always said, ‘I’m not going anywhere. I’m going to be 100. I’m going to make it to 100,’” Carol explained. And when questioned about the secret of his long life, D’Allesandro had a refreshingly straightforward answer. “Eat whatever you want,” he told WPTV. “That’s what I did.”
Happily, there were plenty of well-wishers keen to give D’Allesandro a birthday to remember. According to Carol, “People I don’t even know, when they heard his story, that he was a vet, were just calling and texting, and they were saying, ‘We want to be a part of it.’” And the resulting celebration was one that the centenarian will treasure for the rest of his days.
In fact, there have been a number of drive-by parades in recent years, as many surviving World War II veterans reach their 100th birthdays. But as only men could fight on the front line during the conflict, the number of processions honoring women such as Wright have been fewer and further between.
According to an article published by the Pew Research Center in May 2020, the U.S. armed forces employed some 350,000 women during the war. But today, only around 14,500 of them are left. Sadly, that means that parades such as this one are becoming a rare event – which must have made Wright’s experience all the more special.