In December 1942, a year after the U.S. had joined World War II, Millie Dunn Veasey saw posters urging women to join the U.S. Army, but they all featured white women in uniform.
“I thought to myself that if those white women can do it, so can I,” Veasey told the Army News Service in an interview. “And besides that, my country needs me.”
So that year, after graduating from high school, Veasey enlisted in the Army. She went on to serve overseas in the only all-female and all-Black battalion during World War II. Veasey, who was believed to be one of the last living members of the battalion, died on March 9, 2018, after just turning 100 on Jan. 31.
Her niece, Elsie Thompson, told WUNC that her aunt’s “heart was tired.” Haywood Funeral Home in Raleigh said on its website that Veasey will be buried Monday at Raleigh National Cemetery.
Born on Jan. 31, 1918, only blocks away from the capitol building in Raleigh, N.C., she was one of six children. When joining the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) at 24 years old and weighing just under 100 pounds, her mother thought she couldn’t handle the rigors of military life, and her older brother told her she was “too fragile.” But Veasey continued with her plan.
Because of her background as a clerk-typist, she said the Army assigned her to the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, the all-Black and female unit of the WAAC. The WAAC later became the Women’s Army Corps (WAC).
In 1944, encouraged by iconic Black activist and educator Mary McLeod Bethune, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt pushed the War Department to make use of the women’s corps. In 1945, hundreds of Black women in the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, also known as the “Six Triple Eight,” went overseas.
“It was huge,” Beth-Ann Koelsch, the curator of the Women Veterans Historical Project at the University of North Carolina, told the BBC.
“A lot of these women were very educated but the only jobs commanding officers had thought they could do were janitorial, or working in the kitchen.
“They were not storming the ramparts, but the work that they did do was huge.”
The motto for the Six Triple Eight was “No mail, no morale.”
Members of the Women’s Army Corps’s 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion in England. NATIONAL ARCHIVES
Veasey served in France and England with the unit, which sorted and routed tons of mail for millions of American service members and civilians.
But the unit was separated not only from the men in other units but also from white women in the forces. The Black women worked with no natural light and packages with rotting food often attracted rats. Veasey and her team members had to sleep on beds made of straw, until the Raleigh native, a supply sergeant, managed to negotiate real mattresses for her team.
“Working 24 hours a day in three eight-hour shifts, they sorted through an average of 65,000 items of mail every shift — succeeding even in ensuring a letter marked only ‘Junior’ found its way to its intended recipient,” according to the BBC.
At times when the women were able to relax, the British colonel used to invite Veasey to their house for tea and hors d’oeuvres. During one visit, the family took a picture of her in uniform on their ornate chair, a photo she always kept with her.
First Woman President of Raleigh NAACP
Veasey attained the rank of staff sergeant in the Army, serving from 1942-45. She took advantage of the GI Bill to further her education and graduated from St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh with a bachelor’s degree in business administration. Later, Veasey earned a master’s degree in business administration from North Carolina College.
She worked in a variety of business administration jobs at St. Augustine over the course of the next 30 years.
Veasey served as the first woman president of the Raleigh NAACP, supporting the Civil Rights Movement. In 1966, she hosted Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at her sister’s home during his visit to Raleigh.
“I found him to be a most remarkable young man,” Veasey said in a short film on UNC-TV last year, according to The News & Observer. “Always with dignity and was always interested in what you were doing and what that individual was doing, and to inspire them to do more.”
She also met former President Barack Obama at a presidential town hall meeting at Fort Lee, Va., in 2016.
“He walked over to me with a big smile and I jumped up and said, ‘I have to get up to salute you. I’m proud to stand with the women of the military today. I want to salute you as the commander in chief.’
“He saluted me and I saluted him, and it was just a thrill. He was wonderful. It was the visit of a lifetime.”
Veasey’s niece planned her aunt’s final birthday event in January and more than 100 family members and friends attended.
Civil rights pioneer proved her mettle in #WWII
Millie Dunn Veasey, now 100 years old, said her life changed in ways she never could have imagined when she joined the #USArmy. #BlackHistoryMonth https://t.co/HWCsv7okYO pic.twitter.com/kUfhlTFePA
— U.S. Army (@USArmy) February 18, 2018
“She always encouraged us, get your education, get your education, get your education,” Thompson said.