‘In death, everyone is equal’: CMU student researches the women of WWII

The headstone of Elizabeth Richardson, a member of the American Red Cross, at the Normandy American Cemetery alongside war dead from WWII. Photo Courtesy of Veronica Gregory.

The Normandy American Cemetery (NAC) in France holds row after row of white crosses and stars of David to mark the 9,386 dead from World War II. 

“When you picture someone in the war, it might look like a man in the army running up the beach with a gun,” John Bolt said. He the assistant superintendent of the NAC, one of only a few Americans living and working overseas at the cemetery.

Among the rows of headstones, only four belong to women. 

Mary Barlow, Mary Bankston and Dolores Embrough were all women of color belonging to an all-Black, all-female auxiliary unit. Their unit was the only one of its kind in the Women’s Army Corps and in the entire war.

“They were part of the 6888 Postal Battalion, called ‘six triple eight’ for short,” Veronica Gregory, a graduate student and research assistant at the Central Michigan University Museum said. “I believe the ladies who are part of the Women's Army Corps had some training in the U.S., and then they were deployed overseas to start their duties there, which consisted of sorting and re-mailing mail to servicemen overseas.”

Gregory was researching the three women, as well as the fourth -- Elizabeth Richardson with the American Red Cross -- before traveling to Normandy for spring break this semester. She was there with two other individuals from the museum department to provide background information during an ROTC staff ride. 

“They were not patching up wounded people on the battlefield,” Bolt said. “They were on the front lines. They were in vans providing comfort from home.”

Gregory said this comfort took different forms. 

“As part of the American Red Cross, the way (Richardson) supported morale was that she traveled around in this bus,” Gregory said. “And it had a doughnut machine inside it. 

“The women who were in this ‘clubmobile’ were supposed to make doughnuts but they actually got them shipped in a lot because the machine didn’t work very well. And so they would give coffee and doughnuts to soldiers.” 

But for these four women, and those of the 6888th battalion, the war was not all doughnuts and coffee. 

“During WWII, it was a U.S. government policy that there was segregation in the U.S. military,” Bolt said. 

He said at the time there were really two main branches to the military: the Army and the Navy. 

“The Navy did not allow Black (service members) at all, or any race other than white,” Bolt said. 

Gregory said this affected the 6888th’s experience as well. 

“As I mentioned, they were all female and they were all African American, so they have received a lot of prejudice on both accounts,” she said. 

Eventually, their efforts were recognized. Bolt said they later received a Congressional Gold Medal. 

According to the National WWII Museum, this is the highest possible civilian honor, and its bestowal on the four women of the 6888th battalion passed the 116th U.S. Congress unanimously in 2019. 

“The irony of the NAC cemeteries is that after the policies of segregation, in death, everyone is equal,” Bolt said. 

Women in the war

Across the U.S., women took up administrative positions and involved themselves in the war effort. 

“If a man was doing an administrative job, not on the front lines, women could do that job and free a man to fight,” Bolt said. 

He said there were targeting units that worked to decide where and how to drop bombs. They tried to avoid destroying historical sites and important monuments.

He said women also helped to strategize with the so-called “Monuments Men.” 

“Famously, the aerial bombardments were not very accurate, but it was a new method,” Bolt said. “They had units called targeting.”

There was more work to be done on the home front as well.

“I know that women contributed to the war in a variety of ways,” Gregory said. “Both American women and other women were part of a whole different management of resources and keeping their families together. 

“Also, I believe some women were involved in intelligence efforts. In the French Resistance there were women who were spies or communicated with other allied forces. Women worked as code-breakers.”

Gregory said women at home also took up factory positions that men had to abandon, lending itself to the creation of  “Rosie the Riveter."

“They were not involved in combat roles,” Bolt said. “It is not to say they weren’t close to that kind of action.”

But why is it only those four women? 

Bolt said the Normandy front lasted from D-Day, June 6, 1944, to August 1944, and the soldiers who died had to be buried.

“The soldiers that died during that battle were buried in temporary cemeteries,” Bolt said. 

He said the French government then purchased that land and offered new burial plots to those temporarily buried. After the war had ended, in 1947, families with deceased loved ones still overseas had to make a choice.

They could either have their loved one “repatriated” -- returned to be buried in American soil -- or they could have them buried in the Normandy American Cemetery. 

Bolt said the government would pay for either option, as well as a one-time visit if family members had the remains stay overseas.

“It’s a very powerful choice to make,” he said.

But the four women buried in the cemetery were there mainly because of the timing of their deaths. Bolt said the three with the 6888th died in a Jeep accident in July 1945 in a town not far from Normandy, and Elizabeth Richardson lost her life in a plane crash the same year. 

Because they had died while deceased American soldiers were being temporarily buried, they were put to rest as well, and their families later decided to have them stay overseas in the Normandy American Cemetery.

Bolt said there are several other American war cemeteries around Europe with the remains of women who contributed to the war. 

“Normandy is not the only cemetery where women are buried,” he said. “I think all of them have at least one or more.”