World War II Veteran Lives to Make Them Laugh
(September 18, 2009)
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 WWII.
||WASHINGTON, Sept. 11, 2009
– If, as the saying goes, all the world is a
stage, then Alyce Dixon is the headlining
“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
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
“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
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,
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 secretCambria pool that waited for placement
“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
“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
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
“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
Since the military couldn't help with her skin condition and
she'd earned enough points to leave service, she did. It was
She went back to work at the Pentagon until she retired in
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
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
Article and photo by Samantha L. Quigley|
American Forces Press Service
Comment on this article