By Mylika Scatliffe
When we consider African-American achievement in the military, we think of General Benjamin O. Davis, the Tuskegee Airmen, and General Colin Powell.
For decades there have been efforts to uncover and highlight the amazing feats of Buffalo Soldiers, Black World War II veterans, and heroes of Vietnam.
Like the millions of Black men who have historically struggled to be treated equally and recognized as Americans in the Armed Forces, Black women are a piece of American military history fighting to be included in the narrative.
Black women’s achievements in the military are historic and underrated. Their history goes as far back as Susie King Taylor, the first recognized African-American Army nurse who served with the 33rd U.S. Colored Troops Infantry Regiment during the American Civil War.
The history of Black women in the military became more prominent during World War II.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 and our subsequent entry into World War II, American men and women of all races, moved by earnest patriotism, rushed to enlist in all branches of the United States military.
The Women’s Army Corp was established as the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corp (WAAC) in 1942.
According to the National Archives, Dovey Johnson Roundtree, who would become one of the first Black women Officers, worked with Eleanor Roosevelt, Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers, and Mary McLeod Bethune to draft the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corp resolution that was presented to Congress.
The bill passed the House of Representatives and the Senate and with the signing of the legislation on July 1, 1943, by President Franklin Roosevelt. The name was changed to the Women’s Army Corp (WAC) and made part of the United States Army. Black women were admitted with a 10 percent quota in conjunction with Army policy.
“On Monday morning, 13 July 1942, I reported to Fort Hayes and was sworn into the WAAC. There were eight of us on that morning, and I happened to be the only Negro in the group,” wrote Lieutenant Colonel Charity Adams, in her biography, “One Woman’s Army.”
“As our names were called out in alphabetical order, we lined up,” recalled Adams. “The sergeant who read our names did not realize that the first person on the liest was a Negro and, as our WAAC serial numbers were issued in that order, I was given the first number from the Fifth Service Command- A500001.”
Most of the Black women during World War II served in the WACs. The 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, known as the “Six Triple Eight,” was created to deal with a huge backlog of mail overseas during the war, that resulted from a shortage of European postal workers. When the women of the Six Triple Eight arrived in England they faced warehouses stacked floor to ceiling with undelivered mail and packages, some gnawed by rats looking to feast on packages containing long spoiled cookies and cakes.
Led by Adams, the members of the Six Triple Eight organized into three shifts and worked 24 hours a day, to clear six months of backlogged mail, according to the U.S Army Center of Military History.
They investigated insufficiently labeled pieces of mail, some addressed only with a first name and “Army,” and figured out how to route them to the intended recipients. During any given shift they tracked and processed an average of 65,000 pieces of mail.
Working with the motto “No mail, low morale” in mind, their mission was accomplished in three months.
Women who served in the WACs in the United States faced daunting segregation and discrimination. Their numbers were limited by quota guidelines, which were only lifted when there was a severe shortage of enlisted nurses, according to the National Archives.
“The barriers of sex and race were and still are very difficult to overcome, the second more than the first,” stated Charity Adams in her autobiography, During World War II women in the service in the often subjected to ridicule and disrespect even as they performed the midst of doubt we adjusted to regimentation and learned self-discipline.”
Many women enlisted in the WACs because they were lured by the promise of skilled medical training and technical skills, and they wished to care for wounded American soldiers.
Instead, they were assigned to care for German POWs captured abroad and sent to America. They were also largely relegated to janitorial and menial tasks, even being referred to as orderlies, while white WACS were given skilled assignments such as X-ray technician.
In March of 1945, nearly all of the African-American WACs at Fort Devens in Massachusetts went on strike to protest the discrimination and their sub-par work assignments. Most of the Black WACs returned to work within a few days of the beginning of the strike, except Mary Green, Anna Morrison, Johnnie Murphy, and Alice Young.
Fed up and disheartened at not receiving fair treatment, the four women continued to strike and were court martialed. The strike and court martial were eventually reported by the Black and mainstream presses, causing the War Department to dismiss the charges and release the women back to their units. However, they remained orderlies for the rest of their WAC service.
The Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVEs), was established in July 1942 as the U.S. Navy corps for women, allowing thousands of women to enlist. Black women were not permitted to enlist until late 1944, according to the National Archives, when the WAVES Director Mildred McAfee and Mary McLeod Bethune pushed for black women to be admitted.
According to the National Archives, strict regulations were required of the women who wanted to serve in the WAVEs. They had to be native-born American, at least 18 years old, and provide three references in support of their good character. Enlisted women needed two years of high school and women who wanted to become officers had to have a college degree or two years of college AND two years of business or professional experience.
While Black WAVEs experienced some discrimination, they were trained in the skills of navy life such as plane and ship recognition, signal communications and other duties.
Service in these organizations was an often thankless and daunting challenge for Black women. They pressed to serve a country that did not always, in fact most times did not recognize them as equal citizens or patriots, and the accomplishments and contributions of the women noted below and others like them typically are not part of mainstream history education.
WAC Corporal Lena Derriecott chose the Army Air Forces to honor a friend who died during his first combat mission. Served as a nurse assistant at the base hospital at Douglas Army Air Field in Arizona and served as a member of the 6888th Central Postal Battalion in Birmingham, England during World War II.
Harriett West Waddy was part of the first WAAC class in Fort Des Moines, Iowa and one of only two African-American women to achieve the rank of Major in the WACs.
Lieutenant Colonel Charity Adams served as the highest-ranking Black woman during World War II. She deployed to Birmingham, England to command the 6888th, which was also the first Black WAC unit to serve overseas. She also taught junior high school math and science prior to service in the WACs.
Harriett Pickens and Frances Wills were the first Black women to participate in the WAVEs officer training program. Became the first female African-American officers in the U.S. Navy. Pickens was commissioned as a lieutenant and Wills as ensign.