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A pioneer black female World War II veteran gets honored in Raleigh

RALEIGH — At age 96, Millie Dunn Veasey can still remember the rumble of buzz bombs, the scrambles for underground shelter, the dank and foggy gloom of England in World War II.

Crossing the ocean to serve as one of the first black female soldiers overseas, she recalls being seasick for five days aboard the Queen Elizabeth, which swerved so sharply to avoid German U-boats that it shattered the dinner plates.

“I was in London on VE day,” said Veasey, “under the big clock. And they brought out the cavalry, the horses from the palace. It was really and truly a most profound moment.”

In the early 1940s, few believed a young black woman raised on the Depression-era streets of Southeast Raleigh belonged in the Army, let alone overseas. Not her mother. Not her brother. Not most of America.

Veasey thrived in spite of that double prejudice: a staff sergeant in the 6888th postal battalion, “the six-triple-eight,” the first all-female, all-black military unit sent to war.

Seven decades later, her picture hangs on the wall at the City of Raleigh Museum, one of 15 veterans interviewed for its new “Our War” exhibit, which follows the city’s soldiers, sailors and Marines through vastly different experiences both home and abroad.

“She was the first veteran that we talked to,” said museum Director Ernest Dollar. “She is one of the rare stories of black female veterans in World War II. A lot of people had to push to get them into service, to disprove negative stereotypes. She sort of broke the barriers.”

Today, Veasey has a signed letter of thanks from President Obama. She also has a framed American flag that flew over the U.S. Capitol in her honor. It’s all a bit new for Veasey, who returned from Europe to segregated Raleigh and hardly spoke of her service for decades after the war.

She doesn’t present herself as a pioneer or a feminist. The country asked her to serve, and she did.

An eager volunteer

Veasey grew up on South Bloodworth Street, one of six children, and she graduated from all-black Washington High School in the middle of the Depression’s toughest years. Her father was a “fireman” who lit and tended boilers, but sickness kept him from working for many years, and he died young.

The family had no money for any kind of college, and Veasey found work through New Deal programs that taught her clerical skills. At the time, Raleigh had a population of about 47,000, and a young girl from its black neighborhood didn’t have many options.

But the war opened doors. With so many men needed for fighting, women got rushed into service to free men from non-combat jobs. Nurses. Drivers. Radio operators. Parachute riggers. About 400,000 volunteered.

Back in Raleigh, Veasey saw an advertisement looking for female black recruits. Women with work experience were especially prized. At the time, she didn’t think of her role as freeing a man for the front lines. She thought, if a white woman could join up, why shouldn’t I?

Her family didn’t share her optimism. She was small, weighed less than 100 pounds, and she’d been sickly as a child. Her mother doubted she could handle the rigorous training. Her brother, already in the Army, doubted she could pass the test.

But Veasey took a bus to Fort Bragg, where she aced the exam, physical and written; she was one of three selected. Before long, the girl from Bloodworth Street who’d never been out of Raleigh found herself standing at reveille in the rain at Fort Des Moines in Iowa, wearing Army-issued galoshes that didn’t fit her narrow AAA-sized feet.

“I didn’t know how to tie my tie,” she confessed.

“Faded from history”

More than 800 women served in the 6888th, the unit that eventually chose Veasey.

By the time American soldiers landed in Normandy, the mail sent from home had stacked up for as long as two years, some of it addressed only to nicknames such as “Junior.” With troops scattered over France, finding these men became an arduous and low-priority job.

When the women of the six-triple-eight arrived in Birmingham, England, in early 1945, they found millions of letters stacked ceiling-high, waiting to be sorted in warehouses with the windows painted black. It wasn’t a glamorous or a celebrated job, but it boosted morale. They finished the work in half the time allotted, then moved to France in the spring to tackle mail problems there.

These women, many of whom came from hometowns where they had to drink from separate fountains, joined a victory parade through the streets of Rouen.

“They just sort of faded from history,” said Beth Ann Koelsch, curator of the women veteran’s history project at UNC-Greensboro. “Everybody knew who Rosie the Riveter was.”

Veasey had trained as a clerk in Texas, but signing up for overseas training required a new and shudder-inducing regimen at Fort Oglethorpe in Georgia. There, she learned to wear a gas mask and to abandon ship by a rope. In 1945, she boarded the luxury ocean liner Queen Elizabeth and steamed to war, seasick for five days.

And when she and her fellow soldiers landed in Scotland, the spectators on the dock were just as awestruck as the girl from Raleigh.

“Look at the women,” Veasey remembered them saying. “They’re all in technicolor.”

Triumphs amid wreckage

Veasey didn’t sort the mail herself. She worked for the cadre, the administration, and she did her job well enough to get promoted to staff sergeant.

Her commander, Kittrell native Maj. Charity Adams Earley, was the highest-ranking black female in the military. And in her memoir, she recalls being berated for entering an officer’s club even after receiving a white officer’s invitation.

But Veasey doesn’t have those kinds of stories. Her unit was segregated. The women slept together in what had been a boarding house, and they didn’t see even white females who were in the Army.

They shared the horrors regardless of race. More than 1,000 tons of bombs got dropped on Birmingham. Nearly half of Rouen was destroyed. This was the landscape that greeted Veasey.

In the middle of this wreckage, she found an inclusiveness and common goal that she hadn’t experienced at home. You can still see videos of the 6888th on YouTube, its soldiers marching in neat lines and crisp uniforms through British streets while police officers looked on.

She experienced the same personal triumphs that most veterans brought home. In France, her unit was placed in quarters where the women all slept on straw. Veasey found them all mattresses.

But even though she never fired a rifle, or had one fired at her, she saw war casualties up close. She still thinks of the woman, Lynette, sent home with tuberculosis. Veasey doesn’t know if she survived.

And beyond the novelty of subways and double-decker buses, Veasey came to know a wider world than the segregated South. A British family invited her for tea and hors d’oeuvres, photographing her in uniform in their wide-backed chair.

Seventy years later, she remembers that family’s name: Adams.

Gifts earned in service

Veasey returned to Fort Dix, N.J., with no fanfare or ticker-tape parade.

After the war, she went on to marry, attend college on the G.I. Bill and spend much of her career as an administrative secretary at St. Augustine’s College.

With the confidence and sense of worth she gained overseas, Veasey became active in the Raleigh/Wake branch of the NAACP in the early 1960s, becoming its first female president in 1965.

When students at St. Aug’s became active in the sit-in movement in Raleigh, she would accompany them to the lunch counters downtown. She not only attended the March on Washington in 1963, but she also sat next to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

But she didn’t talk about her war experience in those days. She doubts her colleagues at St. Aug’s even knew about it. Once she retired, she became active in American Legion post 157.

She won many decorations overseas, but her time in the Army gave her more valuable gifts: a structure, an ability to organize her life, a sense of her own self-worth.

She shows off the awards and certificates that came later in life, the flags and presidential signatures. But it’s not why she went to war. She went because they asked.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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