By Samantha L. Quigley
The pages that fill American History textbooks represent much more than history to Alyce Dixon, 104. They could be excerpts from her scrapbook. This would be especially true if it included a page about Dixon being a member of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, the only unit of African-American women in the Women’s Army Corps to serve overseas during World War II.
The third of nine children, the Boston native was born Alice Lillian Ellis on September 11, 1907. She changed the spelling of her name at 16 after seeing the movie, A Bride for a Knight, starring actress Alyce Mills. When Dixon saw her name in the credits, it started her thinking.
“I liked that spelling,” she said. “I thought it was pretty and a ‘y’ and an ‘i’ are the same, so I changed it.” Her mother was a bit bewildered by her daughter’s choice, but Dixon stuck to her guns—something anyone who knows Dixon would expect.
Just before her senior year of high school the family traveled to Washington, D.C., to visit her father’s mother.
“We came to visit my grandmother and never left,” she said. “I went to Dunbar High School here.”
She graduated from Dunbar in 1925 and began classes at Howard University. It was a short-lived college career, however, when she overheard her father talking about the struggles he faced trying to provide for his family on his $25-a-week salary.
Dixon quit Howard and got a job at the Lincoln Theater.
She shared her salary with her parents and siblings.
“I became the first secretary at the Lincoln Theater for $15 a week,” Dixon said. “I put $3 in the bank and gave my mother $5.
“I had $7 to dress and live on. I tell the girls today they can’t even get a good sandwich for $7!” she laughed. “I never saw $2,000 [a year] until I was getting ready to retire in 1972.”
What she saw during the years between her secretary job at the Lincoln Theater and her retirement from the Defense Department might have been worth more than her years of salaries combined.
When Dixon became concerned about a couple of white spots on her neck, she turned to the military.
“I don’t know why I thought the Army knew everything,” she said. “I thought they could get rid of [the spots], so I joined.
“When I went to dermatology I was crying,” she said.
She was disappointed by the doctor’s answer. “He said, ‘Don’t worry about it. One day you’re going to be white,’” she remembered. “I said, ‘Make me white now. Why do I have to wait?’”
The doctor’s prediction came true—her skin has been pale for years. Dixon has vitiligo, a condition that causes skin depigmentation. She still doesn’t understand why she was the only one in her family affected by the condition.
“I was supposed to be white, I think,” she chuckled.
Her decision to join the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps, as it was known prior to 1943, didn’t help her skin condition, but it did satisfy her desire to travel.
As the Army went about selecting 1,000 black women for a tour overseas, Dixon was working at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, typing correspondence on behalf of a general. The general was so pleased with Dixon’s flawless work that he put her on the men’s roster so he could give her a rank. He also was disappointed when she told him he was losing his best typist because she’d been chosen as one of the 1,000 WACs who would serve overseas.
The women of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion landed in Birmingham, England, in 1943. They were charged with clearing an enormous backlog of undelivered mail.
“There had been three battles and nothing had been delivered,” Dixon said. “Oh, it was piled up high! “The general said it would take six months to clear up the mail. You know, we cleared it up in three? We worked eight hours a day, every day—all of us—and we cleaned it up.”
Some pieces of mail were more difficult to forward to their owners than others.
“A lot of people … sent the mail to ‘Junior, U.S. Army,’ ‘Buster, U.S. Army,’” she added. “We knew every veteran had a number … and we found them. It was very difficult at first, but we found every one of them.” Some of the mail was difficult to deal with for a different reason.
“At that time, the wives and sweethearts would write every day, so we had stacks of mail to send back—deceased.”
After the 6888th finished its job in Birmingham, it was on to Rouen, France, to work on clearing up yet another backlog. Dixon said the women—nearly 900 of them—had cleared a total of 90 billion pieces of mail by the time they’d finished.
“It was something we wanted to do and we did it very well,” she said.
While she was overseas, she found some time to indulge her passion for travel venturing to Paris, Florence and Rome, and cities in Germany, too.
She left the WAC in December 1945 and returned to her job at the Pentagon where she worked her way into requisitions.
“I bought everything from pencils to airplanes,” she said, smiling. “I became a good buyer.”
The fact she had such a good rapport with the salesmen might have had more than a little to do with her sense of humor and love of jokes.
If all the world is a stage, then Dixon is the headlining comedienne.
“You’ve got to laugh a little bit!” she said.
She was 65 when she retired from the Pentagon in 1972.
Although she’d traveled plenty during her years with the WAC, it wasn’t enough for Dixon. She’s traveled to Europe twice, Kenya, and has been a frequent visitor to Bermuda.
Her travels represent some of her good memories, but she has had her share of the not-so-good variety, too.
For instance, her 13-year marriage ended over the cost of a week’s worth of groceries.
The feisty Dixon moved on and continued to live life as she always had—on her own terms. In fact, she lived on her own until she was 93. She moved into The Community Living Center at the Washington, D.C. VA Medical Center—where she’s the oldest resident—in 2000.
She’s lived through the Great Depression, and six major American wars.
Theodore Roosevelt was president when she was born, and she’s seen 18 more elected since, including President Barack Obama.
“I saw … a black president. I never thought,” she said, adding that she’s met both the president and first lady Michelle Obama.
In her lifetime, the Berlin Wall was constructed and fell, man walked on the moon and the world’s first test tube baby was born. And for the first time since her war, America was attacked at home and New York was among the scars left behind.
In a life spanning a century there are some regrets, but also plenty of fond memories and laughter. In Dixon’s case, she’s created much of that laughter.
“I’ve enjoyed myself,” she said. “I’ve had a good life.”
The VA Medical Center had a party to celebrate Dixon’s 104th birthday on September 11, which for the past 10 years she’s referred to as “Terrorist Day.” She said the attacks a decade ago have taken some of the shine away from her special day, but for Dixon, life goes on with gusto.
-Samantha L. Quigley is the editor in chief of On Patrol.
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Mar 22, 2012
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