The month of March is designated as Women’s History Month–a time set aside to pay tribute to the contributions women have made to society from years past to contemporary times. Each year, the Library of Congress and many other national agencies offer special programming and exhibits, as well as feature collections and resources that are specifically by and about women. In March and throughout each year, the Veterans History Project (VHP) proudly highlights the service, sacrifice and stories of women veterans, all of whom served with the same valor, honor and bravery as their male counterparts.
I recently perused the VHP online database–now comprised of more than 96,000 collections–and came across multiple records of women who played pivotal roles in every war for which the Project accepts collections. While clicking through the list, two in particular seemed to leap off of my screen and straight into my heart. Each had a unique experience which left a lasting impression on me. One served during an era when not only her gender, but the color of her skin counted against her in some parts of the country. The other went from dreaming of seeing the world with the love of her life to seeing death and destruction on a daily basis. Both are remarkable women.
Evelyn Martin Johnson was 92-years-old when she was interviewed for VHP in 2012, but that didn’t stop her from vividly recalling memories of her days as a member of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) during World War II. Johnson had been working as a practical nurse in the state of New York before volunteering to serve her country. She was assigned to the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, the only all-African American female unit to serve overseas in World War II. Stationed in England and then France, Johnson was one of about 800 enlisted women responsible for redirecting and delivering mail that was waiting to be sent to approximately 7-million American military forces in Europe.
There was a backlog of two and a half years of mail, and the mail was stored in warehouses the size of a convention center.
The 6888th is credited with helping to boost the morale of the troops, whose feelings of loneliness and homesickness had been exacerbated by being cut-off from loved ones back home for so long. Johnson said she was proud to be a member of this important unit, enjoyed her time in Europe and appreciated the life lessons she learned while serving.
Unfortunately, wearing a U.S. military uniform did not always protect Johnson and her comrades from the ugly realities of the times. Unlike in England, where they could freely shop and patronize any restaurant or dance hall in their off-duty time, being both African American and female counted as two strikes against them in some parts of the world, particularly in the southern United States. There, Johnson’s unit was required to sleep in segregated barracks and eat in segregated dining halls. One incendiary incident Johnson and three others experienced trying to board a northbound train stayed with her forever.
I resented the discourtesy we received, and we were wearing a uniform…I was informed by a conductor that we, and he used the n-word, cannot not ride the train.
After Johnson tried to reason with the conductor to no avail, the military officer of the day, a military police officer and the conductor finally reached what they thought was an amicable resolution. They created a make-shift barrier, fashioned from wrapping paper and a piece of chord, to separate the four women from the white passengers on the train. After the humiliating ride, Johnson reported the incident to every advocacy organization she could find, including the Urban League and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, more commonly known as the NAACP.
Johnson said she had no problem readjusting to civilian life after the war, nor did she allow experiences like the one on the train to prevent her from living life to the fullest. She used her GI Bill educational benefits to attend college, and she took advantage of several career opportunities, including that of becoming a medical assistant, then a dental hygienist and later a professional model for colleges and universities. Over the years, Johnson became an active member of several national organizations dedicated to providing support to veterans. She attributed one of her personality traits to her military experience.
I think the military taught you to do what you have to do and move on…You had to complete whatever you were instructed to do, and you had to do it right then and there. And consequently, I am still a ‘now’ person. I want to do everything now and move on.
I think that is a very valuable trait.
Jeanne Urbin Markle served as an Army nurse during the Vietnam War. Like many, Markle had joined the military to see the world; she had no idea the route on which that journey would take her. Her sweetheart, Brian, purposely waited until after they were married to confess that he had received orders to serve in Vietnam as part of an Army medical battalion. The newlyweds boarded a plane bound for Vietnam four months after they exchanged vows. Upon disembarkation, they were greeted by a drastically different atmosphere.
It was 128 degrees, and it had been 47 degrees when we left San Francisco, and so you instantaneously start to sweat, you know. It’s just horrible. There’s no wind, and it’s very dirty…I thought, ‘What am I getting into?’ ‘Why did I do this?’
While her husband served as an officer in charge of medical logistics, such as ordering supplies and maintaining vehicles, Markle was assigned to an evacuation hospital. There, wounded soldiers were triaged and divided into three groups depending on the severity of their injuries. If it became clear that someone’s condition was grave, Markle would often show compassion by sitting with them and holding their hand so that they would not have to die alone. Once, a 19-year-old-patient, worried about whether or not he would be still welcome at home since both his legs had been blown off, asked Markle to write a letter on his behalf to his wife.
There were lots of injuries like that. It was hard.
When Markle conceived their first child, she was shipped home early on a medevac full of severely wounded soldiers on stretchers. During the flight, she took special note of one passenger who had lost both arms as well as his eyesight during combat, which put everything into perspective for her.
Every time the nurse fed him, I thought, ‘If he was not blind, he could see the spoon coming to his mouth, or if he had arms, he could feel himself getting the spoon to his mouth, but he doesn’t have either, and so he can’t reach the food and he doesn’t know when to open his mouth.’ And that was a moment of despair. Nothing I had gone through was as bad as what that young man was going to face the rest of his life.
The Markles went on to live happy, productive lives after the war. They were together for 43 years, raised three children and celebrated the births of seven grandchildren before Jeanne passed away in 2009. The following year, Brian was a guest speaker at VHP’s 10th anniversary commemoration. He expressed how grateful he was that both their stories are safely archived at VHP.
All veterans deserve this opportunity to be remembered, that their service and sacrifice for our country might not fade and be forgotten with the passage of time.
We concur, Brian. It is for this very reason that the Veterans History Project exists.
Thank you, Evelyn Johnson, Jeanne Markle and all the other women who thought enough of the Veterans History Project and future generations to share their firsthand stories. I think all these veterans are simply remarkable–not just because they are women, and not just because they served. To me, they are remarkable because they are women who served.
Sound off in the comments section about the woman veteran in your life. Share with us what makes her remarkable. Then go to www.loc.gov/vets to find out how to preserve her complete story for future generations.