By Col. (Ret.) Edna W. Cummings,
Special to the AFRO
“I can’t date you because I’m enlisted, but I have a sister who is an officer.”
-Private Marian Elzie
More than one million African American men and women served in the U.S. military during World War II. After the U.S. dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, the war with three separate theaters ended with Japan’s surrender aboard the USS Missouri. The year was Sept. 2, 1945.
Now, Catonsville, Md. resident Karen Taylor is providing a glimpse into her parents’ military service. Both her mother and her father served in segregated Black units while stationed in the European Theater of Operations (ETO).
Their story is one of patriotism, valor and love.
The WACS: Vivian and Marian Elzie
In the early 1930s, Vivian Elzie and younger sister, Marian, graduated from Crisfield High School located on the Eastern Shore region of Maryland. Aside from shucking oysters or picking crab meat for shipping, Crisfield, then the seafood capital of the United States, held limited job opportunities– especially for young Black women. A move to Philadelphia enabled both sisters to continue their education.
Vivian attended Berean Business School and trained as a secretary and dental assistant. Marian attended college for two years and also became a secretary. In October 1942, Vivian, then 28 years old, answered the nation’s call to arms for World War II and joined the newly formed Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (later Women’s Army Corps or WACs). In 1944 she was selected for Officers’ Candidate School (OCS) and graduated in December from the 47th class of officers at Fort Oglethorpe, Ga. At the age of 27, Marian enlisted in November 1943 and became a WAC physical training instructor at Ft. Des Moines. With their enlistments, the Elzie sisters were among the 6500 Black women of approximately 140,000 WAACs and WACs who served from 1942 to 1946.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Dr. Mary McCleod Bethune advocated for Negro WACS to serve abroad. Finally, the Army conceded, but didn’t reveal the mission or location of the overseas assignment. But the Elzie sisters were unbothered by the unknown. They were anxious to travel abroad and applied to become a part of this prestigious WAC unit. After being accepted, they underwent psychological testing and two weeks of specialized training at Ft. Oglethorpe.
On Feb. 2, 1945 the sisters boarded the troop ship Ile-de-France ship from Camp Shanks, N.Y. They joined 736 other WACs who were the first contingent of the newly formed unit, RT-510c. Along with thousands of other troops, they crossed the Atlantic headed to the ETO. At least once, the Ile-de-France zig-zagged to avoid a German submarine or U-boat attack. On Feb. 12, the ship docked at a Glasgow, Scotland port (most likely Greenock).
RT-510c was the first unit of its kind as a segregated WAC unit, deployed overseas and commanded by a 26-year-old African-American female, Major Charity Edna Adams. The unit consisted of the Black diaspora, including varied hues from the U.S., Puerto Rico and the Caribbean.
Unlike the male recruits of any race, the Army required all WACs to have high school diplomas. The educational level of this new unit of Black WACs was exceptional, and far above the national educational levels. In the 1940s, 64 percent of the U.S. population did not complete high school, and the Army rejected over five million recruits due to poor health and literacy levels. A February 1945 article by the AFRO highlighted that eighty-five percent of the WAC unit held college degrees or were former school teachers. Major Adams graduated with honors from Wilberforce University and triple majored in math, latin and physics. Prior to joining the WAAC, she was in graduate school at Ohio State pursuing a degree in vocational psychology. In March 1945, RT-510c became the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion or the “Six Triple Eight.”
Their motto, “No Mail, Low Morale,” would go down in history.
The Tanker: Lieutenant Elyseo Jose Taylor
Taylor came from a family with strong military ties. In 1916, his father, Elyseo Joaquin Taylor, served under General John J. Pershing during the Mexico Expedition. He also fought in the Indian Wars and World War I. The younger Taylor grew up in Chicago and graduated from Englewood High School on Chicago’s South Side and was a member of its ROTC program. On Jan. 6, 1941, he joined the National Guard and achieved the rank of sergeant in a field artillery unit. Field artillery seemed incompatible with his civilian career listed as “actor” on his enlistment documents. However, Taylor’s passion for his civilian occupation would one day overshadow his military career. Taylor was eager to serve, ambitious and seized every opportunity for advancement.
In July 1942, at the age of 19, Taylor was the second youngest commissioned officer in the Army when he graduated from OCS at Fort Sill, Okla. Maintaining the highest standards of integrity, he told Army officials that he lied about his age to enlist in the National Guard when he was 16. After OCS, Taylor began his next assignment with the 184th Field Artillery unit, Ft. Custer, Mich. Taylor would soon depart for the ETO and later join a segregated tank battalion of 721 soldiers, the 761st Tank Battalion, serving under General George S. Patton’s Third Army. They called themselves the Black Panthers. Their motto was “Come out fighting.”
Breaking racial barriers with tanks and mail
Before departing for the ETO, the 761st underwent rigorous training to prove its battle worthiness. Oct. 10, 1944, the 761st arrived in France at Omaha Beach and in early November, moved into Belgium. Patton addressed the Black soldiers with fervor and skepticism.
“Men, you’re the first Negro tankers to ever fight in the American Army. I would never have asked for you if you weren’t good. I have nothing but the best in my Army,” said Patton.
The 761st’s first victory was in November 1944, in Morville-les-Vic, Belgium. The 761st fought 183 straight days in six European nations without relief or rest. Although the unit incurred hundreds of casualties, they inflicted more than 130,000 casualties upon Axis powers. The unit received over 300 awards including seven Silver Stars (three posthumously), 56 Bronze Stars, and 246 Purple Hearts with one Congressional Medal of Honor recipient, Staff Sergeant Ruben Rivers.
Taylor was a tank platoon leader in the 761st Baker Company serving under Captain Samuel Brown but spent most of his time serving under Lieutenant Harold Gray. In a 1995 interview with New Jersey’s Hillsborough Beacon newspaper, Taylor discussed how he was wounded three times. The first was a mild injury as a combat engineer, where his job was blowing up hedgerows to eliminate German defensive positions. Feeling sidelined in the war as an engineer, he wrote a letter to General Eisenhower asking for reassignment. Someone in the chain of command agreed to his request, and Taylor received an assignment as a tank commander. His second injury was from a shell fragment in his thigh during the Battle of the Bulge. Taylor’s third and most serious injury occurred when the 761st crossed the Rhine River, where he was hurt while advancing into Germany. His tank was hit, but Taylor managed to move his tank and others into a safer wooded area. There, he was treated for multiple injuries. For valor while injured, he received a Purple Heart (one oak leaf cluster) and a Silver Star.
In early 1945, Allied forces were gaining momentum, but the war was not over. Troop morale was plummeting, and the Army’s Adjutant General sounded an alarm.
No one was receiving mail on the front lines. Troops were battle weary and morale was plummeting. Without mail, the vital connection to loved ones at home was lost. In February 1945, without extensive training in postal operations, the 6888th established postal operations and their own housing facilities with troop support services at the King Edwards School, Birmingham, England. They began an arduous task of clearing a two or three-year backlog of mail and packages resulting from D-Day preparations and subsequent battles. Sutton Coldfield, a city near Birmingham, was the hub for the U.S. Postal operations.
In 1942 U.S. postal units arrived in Sutton but were unable to keep the mail flowing to the troops and Americans in the ETO. Millions of unopened packages and mail stored in warehouses and aircraft hangars were piled in ceiling high mounds awaiting delivery.
The 6888th set up around the clock operations and routed approximately 17 million pieces of mail and packages in 90 days, breaking all mail sorting records. The Army estimated that the 6888th would clear the backlog in six months, but they cleared it in three. After reducing the backlog in England, the 6888th relocated to Rouen, France in May, and to Paris in August. Like most units, the 6888th had casualties. Three 6888th women (Sgt. Delores Brown and Privates Mary Bankston and Mary Barlowe), lost their lives in Rouen due to a vehicle accident. Initially the Army buried their bodies at St. Andre Military Cemetery, France. In 1948, they were moved to their final resting place, Normandy American Cemetery. Only four women are buried at Normandy, and three are from the 6888th.
Romance in a time of war
With the Allied victory in Europe secure, Taylor was assigned to the Ninth Infantry Division’s occupational force in Germany. He recuperated from injuries sustained while crossing the Rhine at a hospital in England (most likely in Birmingham). He was now on non-combat duty as a Recruiting and War Bond Officer. A January 1946 Pittsburgh Courier article reported that Taylor had a 25 percent rate for soldier reenlistment, the highest within the division.
While in England, Taylor met Private Marian Elzie. Since military standards of conduct prohibited fraternization between officer and enlisted personnel, Marian introduced Lt. Taylor to her older sister Lt. Vivian Elzie. Lt. Elzie was one of 31 officers in the 6888th whose job was the assistant mess officer, managing the dining facility or mess hall for the 855 member WAC unit.
After a brief courtship, he proposed. Instead of getting married in her military uniform, Lt. Elzie wanted a traditional white dress. She contacted the Red Cross who loaned her a wedding gown. On Sept. 20, 1945, the two officers were married in Paris at the American Pro-Cathedral of the Holy Trinity. Vivian’s daughter Karen recalls her mom being proud that Major Adams and Marian were her bridesmaids. The couple honeymooned for seven days in the ski resort town of Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany.
Post War Legacy
Unheralded, the last of the 6888th returned to the U.S. in March 1946 and was deactivated on March 9. Shortly thereafter, the 761st’s deactivation was effective on June 1, 1946. Vivian was discharged in December 1945 and returned to her parents’ home in Crisfield.
The Taylor’s union resulted in three children, twins Karen and Dwight, and The’o
]. Elseyo Taylor remained on active duty until 1947 and was discharged with the rank of Major. After five years of marriage, the couple divorced on amicable terms.
Following in the steps of notable alumni from Chicago’s Englewood High School such as Pulitzer Prize winner, Gwendolyn Brooks, Raisin the Sun author Lorraine Hansberry, and Star Trek Actor, Nichelle Nichols, Taylor pursued a career in the arts. He used the GI Bill to pursue undergraduate and graduate education at the University of Chicago. Fluent in several languages, he traveled throughout the world as a freelance photographer and instructor. Eventually, he landed a job at UCLA and was the only Black faculty member in the School of Theater, Film and Television. He became an influential teacher and advocate for students of color and supported the LA Rebellion through his 1971 film, Black Art, Black Artists.
Taylor helped formalize UCLA’s Media Urban Crisis Committee into an academic program, known as Ethno Communications. MUCC trained diverse students in film and media communication. Oscar and Emmy winning producer, Moctesuma Esparza credits Taylor for his success. His daughter, Karen, recalls visiting him in Hollywood and marveling at the Hollywood sign, visiting studios and watching film premieres. Major Elyseo Taylor died at the age of 83 and is buried in Brigadier General William C. Doyle Memorial Cemetery Arneytown, N. J.
Lt. Vivian Elzie Tayor used the GI bill to attend the Art Institute of Chicago where she received her bachelor’s degree. She taught art at several high schools in Salisbury, Md. She died of cancer in 1979 at the age of 69. She is buried at Green Acres Memorial Park, Salisbury, Md.
Marian Elzie Wilson used the GI Bill to attend college and became a dietitian in Manhattan, N.Y. Marian married and had one son. She died in her mid-60s.
Two of Elyseo and Vivian Taylor’s sons followed in their parents’ footsteps and joined the military. Dwight joined the Army and received a Silver Star and the Purple w/oak leaf cluster for his service in Vietnam. The’o joined the Navy. Karen became an X-ray technician and a dental hygienist. Elyseo also has a daughter, Eloise Davis, who lives in New Orleans.
National Honors and Recognition
In 1978, President Jimmy Carter awarded the 761st, a Presidential Citation. On February 14, 2023, Representative Gary Palmer introduced a Congressional Gold Medal for the unit. Several books document the 761st’s history, and the History Channel released a documentary about the unit.
In February 2019, the 6888th received its only unit award, the Meritorious Unit Commendation. In that same year a Six Triple Eight documentary was released and the U.S. Ambassador to the UK dedicated a Blue Plaque in their honor at King Edwards School. On March 14, 2022, President Biden signed Public Law 117- 97 awarding the 6888th a Congressional Gold Medal. This honor distinguishes them as the only women’s unit to receive the nation’s highest civilian honor. Five 6888th members are known to be alive. Fort Gregg-Adams, Virginia bears the name of its Commander, Charity Adams. A Netflix movie and a Broadway bound musical are in the works. Decades after WWII, the 761st and the 6888th unit’s contributions to World War II are now recognized with accolades and gratitude for their contributions to democracy. Karen says that her parents never spoke much about their military service. Like many veterans, they were just soldiers doing their jobs, trying to stay alive and return home.