..."Such a Remarkable Woman!"
Elizabeth Barker Johnson
During World War II, there was a significant shortage of soldiers who were able to manage the postal service for the U.S. Army overseas. In 1944, Mary McLeod Bethune worked to get the support of first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, for "a role for black women in the war overseas.” Black newspapers, too, challenged the U.S. Army to "use black women in meaningful Army jobs.” The women who signed up went to basic training in Georgia. Women who were already in the WAC, like Alyce Dixon, served at different locations, including the Pentagon before they joined the 6888th. Alyce Dixon, the nation’s oldest female veteran, who expedited mail delivery in World War II and later worked as a civilian at the Pentagon, facilitating what she called the purchase of everything from “pencils to airplanes,” died Jan. 27 at a veterans’ retirement center in Washington. She was 108.
The women of the 6888ty sailed to Glasgow in 1945 and encountered several German U-boats during the eleven day journey by sea, forcing the ship to take evasive maneuvers. Eventually the women took a train to Birmingham where they saw “letters stacked to the ceiling of the temporary post office.” Some letters had been in this makeshift office which was a converted hanger, for as long as two years. This undelivered mail was really hurting the morale of the men fighting this war. Many of the letters and packages stacked to the ceiling were only addressed with the first name of the soldier or a nickname, making delivery quite a challenge. A white general attempted to send a white officer in to this “post office,” to “tell them how to do it right!” However, the commander, in great wisdom, replied, “Sir, over my dead body, sir!”
The women had devised a system for handling this backlog and wired in three different shifts, seven days a week. It has been estimated that each shift handled approximately 65,000 pieces of mail under rather adverse circumstances. It was early spring and still very cold in the hanger. They all wore long underwear with coats while they worked. The building was unheated. The 6888th battalion neatly finished up what was supposed to be a six month task in three months.
With the backlog in Birmingham completed with efficiency, the women moved on to Le Harve, France in June of 1945. Here they found another huge backlog of mail with some pieces of mail over three years old. By October this backlog was also cleared up. They moved on to Paris where they received first class treatment and the war was over. The battalion was reduced by 300 women and 200 were due to discharge in January 1946.In February 1946, the unit returned to the United States where they were disbanded at Fort Dix.There was no public recognition for their service at the time.
Elizabeth Barker Johnson was one of the women who served in the 6888th, as a Private First Class. She She was stationed in Kentucky, England, and France during her military career, driving trucks and working at military post offices abroad. She made history as the first female to attend Winston-Salem on the bill when she returned home from WWII. There she was a part of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion of the Women’s Army Corps. Although successfully completing her coursework at Winston Salem Teachers College in 1949, she was unable to walk across the stage at graduation time because she was working as a teacher could not find a substitute for that day. Her certification was sent to her by mail. Johnson would go on to teach in public schools in Virginia and North Carolina for more than three decades. “I felt like teaching school, I could reach more people who would listen to me than if I tried to choose a job among adults,” she explained. “I just decided I wanted to do something more than I saw most of the people around me do and I wanted to do something to help other people so I felt like teaching school was my best choice.”
Now, 70 years later, she walks across the stage at Winston Salem State University fully fitted in a red cap and gown, was awarded an honorary degree in special education. Elizabeth just celebrated her 99th birthday. She said she was more exited by walking across the stage than she was turning 99. “I was excited. I can’t explain how excited I really was,” Johnson told local news station. “I’m just so excited about everything that’s happening. I can’t really believe it’s happening.”
Her son, David Johnson, 60, was there to echo how amazing his mother is.“She’s faced war, she’s faced racism along the way as the only Black school teacher in her area for a long time,” he told the journal. He continued, “She’s such a remarkable woman.”