African-American veteran recalls history
February 28, 2012
By Rhonda Apple
Editor's note: This story uses the word "Negro." Even though this word today is considered inappropriate by some, we have chosen not to change the original quotes in keeping with the subject matter's historical perception.
Amazing is an understatement when describing 104-year-old World War II veteran Alyce Dixon. She's lived through the Great Depression and six major military conflicts, including those in Iraq and Afghanistan. Theodore Roosevelt was president when she was born, and she's seen 18 more elected since, including the first black president, whom she describes as brilliant.
Lucid and quick-witted, the gregarious Army veteran is the oldest resident at the Veteran Affairs Medical center in Washington, D.C. She's been residing at the center for 12 years, since a serious infection required the amputation of her right leg.
One would never guess Dixon's age by looking at her. She cares about her appearance and likes wearing fashionable clothes and jewelry.
"I like to dress up every day and I always dress pretty well," Dixon said. "I tell everyone to dress [nicely] for yourself and you'll feel better about yourself, even if you don't feel good. Wear your jewelry, fix your hair. No one has to tell you that you look good ... do it for yourself."
"I even have a gal come in every few weeks for a manicure," laughed Dixon as she displayed her polished red nails.
Dixon was born Sept. 11, 1907 in Boston. Named Alice Lillian Ellis, she was the third oldest of nine children. Helping with the six siblings, which came after her, gave Dixon all the experience with raising children that she never wanted. "I never had a bicycle or skates or anything like that," Dixon said. "We were poor. I knew when I got married I didn't want any children, I've done it already."
When she was 16, after seeing the actress Alyce Mills in the movie "A Bride for a Knight," Dixon changed the spelling of her given name. "I thought it was pretty spelled differently, so I changed it."
Dixon's Family moved to Washington in 1924. "My father was from here and we originally came to visit my grandmother and never left," she said.
Dixon's life is full of experiences and memories, some good, some not so good.
After high school, Dixon began classes at Washington's Howard University -- however, her college career was short-lived. Dixon said after hearing her father talking about struggling to raise six children on his $25 a week salary, "I felt that helping my Family was more important." Dixon quit Howard to get a job and attended night school.
Dixon has traveled to Europe, Africa and Bermuda, but her 13-year marriage ended over $18, the cost of a week's worth of groceries.
"When we lived in New York, my husband turned over his paycheck to me to pay the bills and buy groceries," said Dixon. "He found out I was sending things to my Family and asked where I got the money. I said, 'I saved it from the food money. I know where to shop where things are inexpensive.'"
Her husband decided to handle the bills himself and gave Dixon just enough to buy the groceries, $18 a week. The plan backfired after a month and Dixon let him know so just before he left for a business trip.
"I found myself a job, an apartment and a roommate. I didn't need his help or money," she added.
Dixon eventually moved back to Washington, and by 1940, was working her first tour as a civilian at the Pentagon. "I was there before the building was completed. I worked in a secretarial pool that waited for placement every day." It never occurred to Dixon that she would encounter racism within the hallowed building.
"They were placing the white girls every day," Dixon recalled. "I told one of my 'Negro' friends, 'Let's go talk to the man in charge and ask him about this.' We went in and I said, "We've been sitting here now a whole week and you haven't placed us. What's wrong?'" Dixon remembered the man told them he was trying to find them a spot. "I said, 'What are you trying to find us a 'black' spot?" She said he denied this and quickly found the two young women a position typing for the Air Force.
"It infuriated me. God made us all and we can't help what we are," she said. "I didn't like that. We all eat and sleep and bleed alike. It doesn't make sense."
From then on, Dixon said work was more regular until 1943 when the military started taking women and she joined the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps. One year later, the name changed to the Women's Army Corps.
Dixon said she joined the Army because she figured they could do something about her vitiligo, a condition that causes skin depigmentation. "When I went to dermatology, I was crying and told them I hoped they could remove these spots. "The doctor said, 'Don't worry about it, one day you'll be white,'" Dixon said. "I said, 'Make me white now. Why do I have to wait?'" Dixon said the doctor's prediction came true, her skin is pale now. "I guess I was supposed to be white," she laughed.
Although the Army couldn't cure Dixon's skin condition, it was able to help satisfy her love of travel.
After completing basic training in Massachusetts, Dixon worked in Iowa doing administrative work. Her first camp was Fort Clark, Texas.
She remembers a female officer named Charity Adams asking a general in Washington why there were no black women serving overseas. "The general did not know the answer to this question. Adams told him she had a lot of intelligent 'Negro' women that should go overseas," said Dixon. "The general said he would collect 20 women from each camp and post until he had about 1,000 women and then send them over."
Dixon was assigned to the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, established in 1945. The 6888th was the only unit of African-American women in the WAC to serve overseas during the war. The battalion included about 900 enlisted women and officers. It was commanded by Army Maj. Charity Adams Earley who, by the end of the war, was the highest-ranking African-American woman in the military.
"None of the mail had been distributed during three battles when we arrived in Birmingham, England," said Dixon. The women saw letters stacked to the ceiling of the building where they worked. Much of the mail had been there for as long as two years waiting to be sent to Soldiers in the field. "We had to sort through 92 billion pieces of mail, including packages" said Dixon. "The general told us it would take six months to completely sort all that mail and we had it sorted and delivered in three months. We worked three shifts a day, seven days a week." The battalion, also known as the Six Triple Eight, also saw duty in Rouen, France, and eventually Paris.
Part of the difficulty with the work, Dixon recalled, was sorting mail to guarantee they were sent to the correct servicemember. "A lot of mothers wrote to 'Buster, U.S. Army,' or 'Junior, U.S. Army,'" said Dixon. "We knew every servicemember had a number and we had difficulty finding them, however, we found every person. Also a lot of wives and sweethearts wrote to Soldiers every day. There were stacks and stacks of mail we had to send back indicating deceased. That was sad," she said.
"We had to fight mice and rats while sorting the mail," said Dixon. "People down south from Alabama were sending fried chicken and bread to Soldiers in France."
Although they were contributing to the war effort significantly, the women of the 6888th were still segregated from the other American troops. They slept in separate barracks and ate in separate dining halls.
"I felt like I was doing something worthwhile for my country when I was in the Army with the 6888th in Europe," said Dixon.
While Dixon was in France, she didn't join the other girls "when they went out for cocktails and time flirting with Soldiers. If we got a pass, I traveled. Sometimes I'd buy another girls' pass and travel even more. I loved Paris and also enjoyed visiting Belgium, Germany and Italy."
After serving with the 6888th and three years in the Army, Dixon's military service ended. She returned to the Pentagon and retired from government service in 1972.
Dixon is famous for her sense of humor. "I like to tell jokes." Dixon shares her jokes liberally around the residential center. "You have to laugh a bit and live it up," she said.
Dixon is proud of her military and government service. But she is most proud of her community service. Dixon has worked as a volunteer at several area hospitals, and as the longest-residing resident at the VA hospital, has served as president of the facility's residence council.
Dixon is quick to recall a long list of current events she keeps up with as an avid reader. She knows life is difficult at times and some people are enduring hardships. Dixon credits her longevity to "paying it forward."
"I believe that being kind to others and helping those in need leads to a long life,"said Dixon.