Face of Defense: World War II Veteran Lives to Make Them Laugh
By Samantha L. Quigley
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Sept. 11, 2009 If, as the saying goes, all the world is a stage, then Alyce Dixon is the headlining comedienne.
Alyce Dixon, who turns 102 on Sept. 11, 2009, served in the Women's Auxiliary Army Corps, which later became the Women's Army Corps, from 1943 to 1945. She was part of the 6888th Postal Battalion, the first all-female, all-black battalion, in World War II. DoD photo by Samantha L. Quigley
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
“You’ve got to laugh a little bit,” she said. “I’ve been telling jokes up until now. I tell them all the time.”
The birthday girl, who describes herself as fresh, forward and sassy, and who turns 102 today, has found humor a useful tool throughout her life. It helped her build rapport with clients when she worked as a civilian in requisitions at the Pentagon.
“I was able to buy everything from pencils to airplanes,” she said with a smile. “I became a good buyer. I dealt with all the stores here in Washington that sold office supplies. I always knew all the salesmen.
“They seemed to like to come and talk to me,” she added. “I cut up with them and they liked that.”
But back then, she refused to share her wit with the other girls in the office who discovered her secret but didn’t have the knack. She told them she was going to keep her jokes to herself.
Now she shares them freely.
She retired from that job at the Pentagon in 1972, but she’d walked the hallowed halls for many years before that, starting before the building was even complete.
Born Sept. 11, 1907, in Boston, Alice Lillian Ellis was the third oldest of nine children. The six that came after her gave her all the experience with raising children that she ever wanted.
“I said when I get married I don’t want any children,” Dixon remembered. “I’ve done it already.”
Her marriage to George Dixon wouldn’t take place until 1930, when she was 23, but she stuck to her guns about raising her own family.
Dixon’s family moved to Washington in 1924. It was her father’s home and they’d originally come just for a visit.
“We came to visit my grandmother and never left,” she said. “I went to Dunbar High School here. That was one of the best schools … and I graduated from Dunbar in 1925.”
A few years earlier, Dixon had changed the spelling of her given name “Alice” to “Alyce.” She was 16 and had seen actress Alyce Mills in the movie “A Bride for a Knight.”
“The lady had it and I liked it,” Dixon said. “I liked that spelling. I thought it was pretty and a ‘y’ and an ‘i’ are the same, so I changed it.”
After high school, Dixon began classes at Washington’s Howard University. Her college career would be short-lived, however.
She overheard her father talking about his struggles to raise six children on his $25 a week salary. She felt that helping her family was her first priority. So she decided to quit Howard, get a job and go to night school.
“I got a job here at the Lincoln Theater,” Dixon said. “That was one of the Negro theaters. I became the first secretary at the Lincoln Theater for $15 a week.”
He friend asked her what she was going to do with the princely sum her salary paid. Three dollars a week went to savings, $5 went to her mother, she said.
“I had $7 to eat and dress with,” she recalled. “[My friend] should be living now. You can’t even hardly get a loaf of bread [for that.]”
A subsequent job with the Census Bureau garnered a hefty raise, $105 a month.
“I never saw $2,000 [a year] until I was getting ready to retire in 1972,” Dixon said.
Dixon may not have seen big salaries during her career, but she had many memorable experiences thanks to Uncle Sam.
By 1940, Dixon was working her first tour at the Pentagon as a civilian. She came to the building to become a secretary, which she eventually achieved. What she hadn’t come to the building for was to endure racism, which she encountered.
She was part of a secretarial pool that waited for placement every day.
“There were five of us and they were placing all the white girls every day,” Dixon said. “I said to one of [my friends], ‘Let’s go and talk to Mr. Fred … and ask him what happened.’
“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, recounting that the man told them he was trying to find them a spot. “I said, ‘What, are you trying to find us a ‘black’ spot?’”
He denied this and quickly found the two ladies 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 at all. God made us all. We all eat and sleep and bleed alike. It don’t make sense.”
From then on the work came more regularly until 1943 when the military started taking women and Dixon joined the WAACs, the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps.
A year later, the WAACs became the WACs, the Women’s Army Corps.
Dixon said she joined the military because she figured they could do something about her vitiligo, a condition that causes skin depigmentation.
“When I went to dermatology I was crying,” she said. “I said, ‘I hope you can remove these spots.’
“[The doctor] said, ‘Oh, 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?’”
The doctor’s prediction came true -- her skin is pale now.
She still doesn’t understand why she was the only one in her family who was afflicted, she said.
“I was supposed to be white, I think,” she chuckled.
Despite the Army’s inability to help cure her skin condition, it was able to help satiate her travel lust.
As a writer for the military, her try-out piece, “The Long and Short of It,” drew unwanted attention. The story was about herself and her bunkmate. Dixon was a petite 5-foot tall. Her bunkmate measured a full foot taller.
The story found its way to many posts and camps.
“All the short men wrote me a letter. A lot of [them] came to see me,” she remembered. “I hated short men.”
As the Army went about selecting 1,000 black women for a tour overseas, Dixon was working for a general who was so pleased with her typing skills that he put her on the men’s roster so he could give her a rank.
“I [typed] a couple of letters and then I saw the general running up and down and I said, ‘Oh God, what did I do?’” Dixon said. “He said, ‘This is the first letter that’s gone out in two months without any erasure or misspelled words. I’m keeping you.’”
The general’s joy was short-lived as Dixon was chosen as one of the 1,000 black women who would form the 6888th Postal Battalion. The battalion was charged with clearing a backlog of mail in London before turning their efforts to a similar predicament in France.
The backlogs had occurred when mail was unable to be distributed because of large battles, which meant frequent troop movements.
“Some of the mail was very hard to send because a lot of people from the South … addressed their letters ‘Junior U.S. Army,’” she said. “We had to find out what place it came from and we knew every man had a number, so we had to search and find it” by matching the city with the name and a number.
Since the military couldn’t help with her skin condition and she’d earned enough points to leave service, she did. It was December 1945.
She went back to work at the Pentagon until she retired in 1972.
Her life has been full of experiences and memories, some good, some not so good.
For instance, she’s traveled to Europe, Africa and Bermuda, but her 13-year marriage ended over the cost of a week’s worth of groceries.
When the couple lived in New York, her husband was in the habit of turning over his weekly pay check to her to pay the bills and buy groceries. He found out, however, that she regularly sent things to her family and asked her where she got the money.
“I said, ‘I save it from the food money. I know where to shop where things are cheap,’” Dixon recalled.
Her husband then decided to handle the bills himself and give his wife just enough for 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 said, ‘Well, I don’t like that arrangement. So, when you come back, find yourself a room because we’re not going to stay together because I don’t want to be with you,’” she recalled.
As usual, the feisty Dixon moved on and continued to live life as she always had: on her own terms. She lived on her own until she was 93, moving into the Washington DC VA Medical Center in 2000. There, she’s the oldest resident.
She’s also the oldest of the three living members of the 6888th Postal Battalion.
Dixon has lived a long life and seen a great many things.
She’s lived through the Great Depression and six major wars, 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.
“I saw … a black president. I never thought,” she said. “And he’s not really black. He’s half white. His mother’s Irish.
“That’s what’s so mixed up,” she added. “Nobody knows what they are anyhow. It’s a crazy world.”
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 her adopted home of 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 is hosting a birthday party for Dixon today, which she refers to as “Terrorist Day.” She said the attacks eight years ago have taken some of the shine away from her special day, but for Dixon, life goes on with gusto.