The Life of Ocracoke Native, Major General Ira Thomas Wyche (1887-1981)

Upon a small sand hill, “Cedar Hammock” by name, on the north end of Ocracoke Island, the U.S. Life Saving Service established a new station in 1883. The village of Ocracoke, a tiny settlement of fewer than 400 people, lay 14 miles distant. Nothing but tidal flats, sea oat crowned sand dunes, several tidal creeks, a few hammocks protected by live oaks and scrag cedars, and a foot path lay between the station and the village.

1883 Cedar Hammock Life Saving Station (also called Ocracoke Station, and later, Hatteras Inlet Station):

James W. Howard was commissioned first keeper of the Ocracoke Life Saving Station. Six surfmen, all native islanders like the keeper, were assigned to the station from August through May. The men soon built modest homes surrounding the station, and brought their wives and families to live nearby. The Cedar Hammock community numbered about two dozen.

Keeper James W. Howard:

Keeper Howard, a former seafaring man, was 46 years old; his wife, Zilphia, a year younger. Although Zilphia had born twelve children, only Lorena (16 years old), Homer (15), Sabra (13), and Wheeler (7), had survived.

During his twenty years of service at Cedar Hammock keeper Howard and his crew demonstrated extraordinary courage and bravery, battling wind and tide to rescue hundreds of sailors from schooners and other vessels that wrecked on Ocracoke’s shore. During the off season, when the station was not manned, Captain Jim and his family returned to their home in Ocracoke village, where their ancestors had lived for more than a hundred years.

In 1884, Rev. Lawrence Olin Wyche, a native of Waynesville, NC, was assigned to Ocracoke’s Methodist Episcopal Church, South. The small, wood frame church and nearby parsonage were situated on Howard Street, just a few doors away from Captain Jim and Miss Zilphia’s village home. In 1884 Rev. Wyche was 32 years old, and unmarried.

The Ocracoke Methodist Episcopal Church, South (on Howard Street):

Rev. Wyche, by all accounts, was a remarkable man. Handsome, talented, educated, charismatic, and extremely personable, he was liked by all. Seventeen year old Lorena Howard immediately fell in love with her new pastor. Feelings were mutual, and the two were married in 1885.

Methodist preachers in those days seldom served one charge for more than a year or two, and Rev. Wyche was soon moved to the mainland where he ministered to congregants in “Jones Circuit,” five small churches in eastern North Carolina.

Lorena and Lawrence Wyche’s first child, Elsie, was born in 1886 on Ocracoke Island. Her brother, Ira Thomas, followed in 1887; and another sister, Martha (Mott), was born in 1893.

In 1897 Lorena Howard Wyche died suddenly, at the age of 31. She was buried in the church yard on Ocracoke. Since Rev. Wyche was still “riding the circuit” on the mainland, Captain Jim and Miss Zilphia assumed guardianship of Elsie, Ira, and Mott. During the “active season” the children accompanied their grandparents to Cedar Hammock. Their father returned to the island as often as possible.

Rev. Wyche was visiting his children in December of 1899. He had brought Christmas presents from the mainland, and was preparing to celebrate the holidays with his Ocracoke family, when the British steamship, Ariosto, ran aground on Christmas Eve. Most of the ship’s crew chose to abandon ship. Their life boats immediately capsized and they were thrown into the frigid ocean water. Twenty-one sailors drowned that terrible night. Had they all remained on board the ship all would almost certainly have been rescued. As it was, nine survived, thanks to heroic efforts by the Life Saving crew.

Rev. Wyche conducted Christian burials for the sailors whose bodies washed upon the beach. Christmas at Cedar Hammock was a somber celebration in 1899.

Tragically, just three and a half months later, Rev. Wyche died suddenly. He was buried in the Howard cemetery near his wife’s eight small brothers and sisters. Lorena’s body was soon disinterred and re-buried beside her husband.

Elsie, Ira, and Mott continued to live with their grandparents, on Howard Street during the summer, and at Cedar Hammock the rest of the year. An old horse stable near the station was converted to a schoolhouse, and a schoolmaster, “Captain Wilson,” was employed to instruct the children.

Ira’s uncle, Franklin Pierce Wyche, soon invited him to attend the Quackenbush School in Laurinburg, Scotland County, North Carolina, where Mr. Wyche was director. For a time Ira also attended the Trinity Park School in Durham, NC, under the administration of a young Methodist minister, Rev. W. W. Peele.

Upon graduation from high school Ira enrolled at the United States Military Academy at West Point. The Laurenburg School was so highly respected that a certificate of graduation from Quackenbush exempted Ira from taking an entrance examination. He graduated from the Academy June 13, 1911, and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the 13th Infantry.

Over the next three and a half decades Ira Wyche’s career advanced steadily. During World War I he served with the American Expeditionary Force in France. In June of 1941 he assumed command of the 79th Division. In June of 1944 the 79th Division landed on Utah Beach in Normandy. General Wyche led his troops, often in fierce combat, across Europe and into Germany. During this time General Wyche worked closely with Field Marshall Mongomery, Prime Minister Winston Churchill, and Generals Eisenhower, Bradly, and Patton. The 79th was occupying Essen when Germany surrendered. At his retirement, in 1948, Wyche held the permanent rank of Major General, privileged to wear the two star insignia.

During his service, in addition to campaign ribbons, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, the Silver Star, the Bronze Star with two oak leaf clusters, the Army Commendation Ribbon, and the French Order of the Legion of Honor, grade of Officer, Croiz-de-Guerre Avec Palm. (For more detailed information about General Wyche’s career see the bulleted highlights at the end of this article.)

Ira Thomas Wyche:

Insights into General Wyche’s character and personality can be gleaned from public records and various newspaper reports (undated and unattributed) that were collected and preserved by his elder sister Elsie.

One newspaper reports that “Maj. Gen. Ira T. Wyche…is a small, wiry, intense, red-faced man, and ‘very aggressive.’”

Maj. Gen. Ira T. Wyche Reading a Map During Combat:

A small booklet, “The Cross of Lorraine Division: The Story of the 79th”  (one of a series of G.I Stories published by the Stars & Stripes in Paris in 1944-1945), relates this story:

“Mopping up ‘Bloody Hill’ was the division’s final chore in the La Haye sector. There, Maj. Gen. I.T. Wyche, division commander, graphically displayed the caliber of leadership the 79th has enjoyed since activation. On one of his daily visits to the front, he found a platoon pinned to the slope. There was little or no cover and an understandable degree of disorganization prevailed. Repeatedly exposing himself to enemy fire, Gen. Wyche regrouped the men and led them a distance of two hedgerows to a position where they were enabled to knock out the strongpoint. At the peak of action he struggled in front of the battle line to help evacuate a wounded infantry scout.”

Another newspaper account mentions his “black hair” and “leathery face…wrinkled with lines of kindliness” and his “small stature” which belie his “mental vigor and quick action,” all of which “impress those in his presence.”

General Wyche:

The newspaper reports that “[e]ach day that he is in camp, the major general’s flag, with two stars, is displayed on each side of the entrance to the Seventy-Ninth Division headquarters.”

Major General’s Flag:

The account goes on to say that “General Wyche is a reticent man; his modesty does honor to the soldiers in his command. He would say nothing about himself; instead he recognizes his troops on every occasion.”

General Wyche was an accomplished horseman, a reflection of his early childhood on Ocracoke living with his grandfather, Captain Jim Howard, also an avid equestrian. The above quoted newspaper says that “General Wyche is fond of horses. His own mount died recently, but he rides his wife’s thoroughbred horse over the training area while observing troops.”

In spite of his “aggressive” nature, another press report says “General Wyche is one of the most popular officers in the Army, and his coming to the post [Fort Bragg] is always the signal for a round of social festivities.”

Earl O’Neal, in his book “Ocracoke Island, Its People, the U.S. Coast Guard and Navy Base During World War II,” writes that after Germany’s surrender in 1945 “General Wyche threw a farewell party for all unit commanders down to Battalion level at Neheim, Germany.”

Ocracokers are justly proud of “cousin Iry” as my father always referred to him, a native son who distinguished himself in the service of his country.

Highlights from General Ira Thomas Wyche’s life and career:

  • Service in a half dozen western Army camps from 1911 – 1918, including tours of duty in California and Alaska, and another with the Texas Border Patrol (1916-1918).
  • Marriage to Mary Louise Dunn, daughter of Colonel and Mrs. George M. Dunn, in 1917.
  • Service in France with the American Expeditionary Force during World War I where he served with the 60th Field Artillery as captain (then major and lieutenant colonel) in the St. Die sector of France.
  • Birth of his daughter, Elizabeth, November 15, 1919 in Washington, DC. (Elizabeth married Henry C. Flory who served as captain in the R.A.F. during World War II.)
  • Graduation from the Mounted Service School (1916), Field Artillery School (1924), Command and General Staff School (1925), and the Army War College (1934).
  • Instructor in various cavalry and field artillery branches of the Army, including regimental commander at Camp Jackson, S.C.
  • Military intelligence officer for the 4th Corps Area in Atlanta, Georgia.
  • Assistant Chief of Staff for plans, training and supply of 4th Corps.
  •  Service in the office of the Chief of Field Artillery (colonel), Washington, DC, 1940.
  • Commissioned Brigadier General (1941), and given command of the 74th Field Artillery Brigade, 4th Army Corps, at Camp Blanding, Florida.
  • Sent to Camp Pickett, Virginia to organize the 79th Division, May 3, 1941.
  • Formally assumed command of the 79th Division, June 15, 1941.
  • Commissioned Major General (commander of a division of 10,000 to 20,000 soldiers who is capable of fully independent field operation.), April 17, 1942.
  • The 79th Division (nicknamed the “Cross of Lorraine Division”) under command of General Wyche landed on Utah Beach, Normandy, June 12, 1944, spearheading the assault on Fort Du Roule, and helping to clear the Cherbourg area of Germans by June 28.
  • In July and August, 1944 the 79th marched 2,300 miles across Western Europe, fighting some of the Third Reich’s finest panzer and parachute divisions, as it made its way through France, and into the Belgian frontier.
  • By September 7, the 79th entered the Alsace-Lorraine region, and became embroiled in 128 days of bitter, almost continuous combat. By the middle of December they had fought their way into Germany, but were unable to penetrate the Siegfried Line.
  • In January of 1945 two regiments of the 79th met a formidable German offensive, and though the 79th lost ground, they inflicted so many casualties on the Germans that the offensive was halted.
  • In late February the 79th continued its advance, moving through Belgium and southern Holland, returning to Germany in the first week of March.
  • On March 24, 1945 the Cross of Lorraine Division crossed the Rhine River (this endeavor was codenamed “Operation Flashpoint”).
  • By April 11, the 79th was in the Ruhr area and occupied Essen.
  • After the surrender of Germany, on May 8, 1945, General Wyche was transferred to command the VIII Corps (Camp Gruber, OK) in Germany, which position he held until December, 1945.
  • During 1946 General Wyche served on the Officer Interview Board, commanded the III Corps at Camp Polk, LA, then became commanding officer of the 1st Service Command at Boston.
  • In January of 1947 President Truman appointed General Wyche Inspector General of the Army, the position he held until he retired in September, 1948. He was 61 years old.
  • After his retirement in 1948, General Wyche moved to Pinehurst, N.C.  He died in 1981 (two years after his wife) in Moore General Hospital following a stroke, and was buried in the Fort Bragg National Cemetery.



References include:

O’Neal, Earl, Ocracoke island Its People, the U.S. Coast Guard and Navy Base during World War II, copyright 2001 by Earl O’Neal

Charles W. Allison, James Wyche Family History, copyright 1955 by Charles W. Allison

Various nespaer articles (undateded and unattributed) from Elsie Wyche Tolson’s scrapbook