STAYING STRONG: Civil rights pioneer proved mettle in World War II

President Barack Obama returns a salute from Millie Dunn Veasey, Sept. 28, 2016, at a town hall meeting on Fort Lee, Virginia. Veasey served as a staff sergeant in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II.

RALEIGH, N.C. – Millie Dunn Veasey, now 100 years old, said her life changed in ways she never could have imagined when she joined the Army.

Born on Jan. 31, 1918, just nine blocks from the capitol building in Raleigh, North Carolina, Veasey described herself as a homebody.

She was just fine staying put, not hankering for travel or adventure.

Family life was good. She remembers attending church with her maternal grandparents, Essex Eli and Millie Gunter Henry at the First Baptist Church, where her grandma sang in the “Sunshine Band.” Both were born into slavery, she added, but they never talked about it with her.

The family didn’t have money to send their kids to college, so after graduating from high school, Veasey landed a job doing clerical work with the Wake County Extension Office.

War declared

Then, on Dec. 7, 1941, World War II started for the United States. Veasey’s insular world would soon change forever.

In 1942, Veasey’s older brother Eugene enlisted in the Army.

Also, that same year, she began seeing posters exhorting women to join the Army to “free a man to fight.” The posters, she noted, all featured beautiful white women in uniform.

“I thought to myself that if those white women can do it, so can I,” she said. “And besides that, my country needs me.”

Learning of her intentions, her mother warned her against joining because she didn’t think her little girl could handle the physical exertion. The 24-year-old weighed just under 100 pounds.

Before leaving for the Pacific theater, her older brother also told her she was “too fragile” for Army life.

Despite the warnings, Veasey enlisted in December 1942. The next month she left Raleigh for the first time, on a bus to Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

The physical and written exams were tough, she said. Of the 21 women taking them, just three were selected, including herself. Veasey said she surprised herself and attributed passing to grit and determination.

That experience and others that followed in the Army helped to shape her life and gave her the strength to become a leader in the civil rights movement later on, she noted.

Shortly after passing her Army exams, Veasey did get a bout of homesickness and had second thoughts about enlisting. When she asked to return home, she said she was told: “You signed your name. You’re in the Army now.”

Army training

For basic combat training, Veasey said she was shipped to Fort Des Moines, Iowa, in April 1943.

From there, she went to a number of training sites, from Fort Clark, Texas, to Camp Maxey, Texas, and finally to pre-mobilization training at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia.

Because of her background as a clerk-typist, she said the Army assigned her to the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, an all-black female unit of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps consisting of more than 800 women.

The 6888th would become the only all-black, all-female unit to serve overseas during World War II, she said. Also, their commanding officer, Maj. Charity Adams Earley, was the highest-ranking black female in the U.S. military.

Shipping to Europe

In early February 1945, the 6888th boarded a troop ship in New York, bound for Europe.

The six-day voyage was miserable for Veasey because she was seasick. Their boat also came under attack from German U-boats, narrowly escaping being torpedoed.

When they arrived in Glasgow, Scotland, a number of natives lined the dock to witness their arrival. One of them loudly exclaimed: “Look at the women. They’re all in technicolor,” she said laughing, noting the local citizens had never seen black people.

From there, they were bused to their first duty station, Birmingham, England. Veasey said she was horrified to see the devastation caused by German V-1/V-2 rockets, which the Allied troops referred to as “buzz bombs.”

Over the next few months, the 6888th processed millions of pieces of mail, she said, adding she hopes her small part contributed to the morale of the troops.

Although the Soldiers worked long, hard hours, Veasey said there were opportunities for relaxation. For instance, the family of a British colonel used to invite her to their house for tea and hors d’oeuvres.

By early May, the allies had reached Berlin. Veasey was granted leave then, and she traveled to London.

Much of London too had been destroyed by the bombings, she said, noting that the pictures of the rubble of the World Trade Center following the 9/11 attacks brought back memories of the devastation she’d witnessed in Europe.

She vividly recalls standing below the Great Bell of the clock known as Big Ben, when a large commotion occurred. It was May 8. Victory in Europe had just been declared and people everywhere were cheering.

A few days later, she and the 6888th embarked on a ship for France. Although the war in Europe was over, the occupation by the Allies would last a while longer, so the 6888th was still needed for their vital role in mail distribution.

For Veasey, the move also involved a change in responsibilities from postal clerk to supply sergeant.

She said she remembers that at the time, the female Soldiers were housed in primitive barracks that may have actually been a barn.

She said she remembers the women of her unit sleeping there on straw. As supply sergeant, Veasey became something of a hero to her fellow Soldiers after procuring mattresses for everyone to sleep on.

Later in 1945, the Army selected Veasey to attend officer candidate school, but she declined. She said her reason for enlisting had been to support the war effort. Now that the war was over, she wished to return to Raleigh.

Veasey out-processed at Fort Dix, New Jersey, in December 1945. During her time in the Army, she attained the rank of staff sergeant.

Post-war activities

Upon returning home, Veasey said she took advantage of the G.I. Bill to further her education.

Using her benefits, she graduated from St. Augustine’s College with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. Later, she attained a master’s degree in business administration from North Carolina College.

In 1949, she married Warren L. Veasey, who brought two children with him into the new family: Juanita and Warren Jr. Her husband passed away in 1961 and she never remarried.

Civil Rights Movement

Having lived in England and France, Veasey was exposed to a world without segregation.

People of color had fought and died for freedom in America’s wars, Veasey said. Now, those same people wanted equal treatment.

Although she was in her 40s at the time, she said she went with young people to “sit-in” movements in downtown Raleigh where blacks were not allowed.

In 1963, she helped organize a bus trip to the nation’s capital, where she participated in the Aug. 28 March on Washington. As an organizer, she had a front row seat near the Lincoln Memorial where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech.

At the time, she recalls the speech as very stirring but not particularly out of the ordinary.

But today, she said she realizes that she was a witness to history.

Veasey continued to organize behind the scenes in the NAACP. She said that probably no one at the time realized she had served during World War II and she didn’t think it was any big deal.

Her efforts were rewarded when in 1965, she became the first black female president of Raleigh/Wake County branch of the NAACP, a post she held until 1968.

She met several times with King and also with Thurgood Marshall, the first black Supreme Court justice. In 1966, Veasey also arranged for King to speak in Durham and Raleigh.

A grateful nation

When Veasey left the Army, there was no victory parade for her or the 6888th, she said. But over time, the nation began to recognize those who served – including black Americans in particular.

One of greatest moments in her life, Veasey said, was meeting President Barack Obama in 2016 during a veterans’ event at Fort Lee, Virginia.

“He walked over to me smiling and I stood up and saluted him. He saluted me back and said he was proud to stand with the women in the military,” she said

While Veasey left the Army in 1945, she said she continued to serve, but in a different capacity. From 1993 to 2013, she served as post adjutant for American Legion Post 157.

Veasey is only one of three surviving women of the 6888th.

Soldier for life

Veasey noted that when her brother returned from Burma, he never discussed what it was like. Neither did her younger brother, who went off to fight during the Korean War. People just didn’t talk about it, she said. They went on with their lives.

Perhaps the biggest change in her own life, Veasey said, was joining the Army. She said the Army provided structure to her life, taught her how to organize and helped to boost her sense of self-worth and dignity.

“Being in the Army changed my life,” she said. “You value the camaraderie and close-knit kinship of fellow Soldiers. You look out for each other. I’ll take that experience with me forever.”

Of her World War II service she added: “We weren’t heroes; we just did what needed to be done.”