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Obituaries

Charity Earley, 83; Led Black Women's Battalion in WWII

January 20, 2002|DENNIS McLELLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Charity Earley, the first black commissioned officer in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps and commander of the only battalion of black women who served overseas during World War II, has died. She was 83.

Earley , a retired teacher and school administrator, died of undisclosed causes Jan. 13 in Dayton, Ohio, where she once served on the Sinclair Community College board of trustees.

In 1942, Earley became the first black commissioned officer in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, which became the Women's Army Corps, or WACs. She downplayed the distinction of being the first by saying it was due to her maiden name, Adams, being at the head of the alphabet and putting her at the top of the list of new officers. But as she said in a 1997 interview, "I earned the rest of it, I assure you."

As commanding officer of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, Earley was the highest-ranking black woman serving overseas. Her all-black, 850-member female battalion was stationed in Birmingham, England, and later Rouen, France.

In 1995, Earley was publicly recognized by President Clinton at the groundbreaking for the Women's Memorial in Washington, D.C. A year later, she was honored by the U.S. Postal Museum Hall of Fame. And in 2000 she was among 16 veterans invited to Washington by Clinton to attend the groundbreaking for a World War II memorial.

"When I talk to students, they say, 'How did it feel to know you were making history?' But you don't know you're making history when it's happening," Earley once said. "I just wanted to do my job."

Born in Kittrell, N.C., Earley graduated from Wilberforce University and was teaching school when she received an application for the newly established Women's Army Auxiliary Corps. in 1942.

"This was the first time they started something new and positive for blacks and whites at the same time," she told the Dayton Daily News in 1996.

Earley was among 40 black and 400 white women in the corps' first class, whose platoons were separated by race. At the end of officer candidate training, Earley was made 3rd officer, the equivalent of a 2nd lieutenant, and became a commanding officer of a training unit.

After being deployed to Europe, Earley set up and administered the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion.

Her battalion's mission: to deliver mail to all Americans stationed in the European theater.

With soldiers constantly on the move, that was no easy task. There were 7 million cards bearing the mailing information for individual GIs on file in the European theater of operations--some 7,200 Robert Smiths alone.

To make matters worse, when Earley's postal delivery battalion arrived in England, the Battle of the Bulge had disrupted mail deliveries to thousands of GIs, and three giant airplane hangars were packed full of undelivered mail.

"I had to learn the postal business real fast," she recalled.

The women in her battalion spent the first two hours of each day updating the cards bearing mailing information. Then they would sort the new mail that came in.

Earley had her women working in three eight-hour shifts: a third would be sorting mail, a third sleeping and a third off duty.

Before she was through, Earley told the Columbus Dispatch, she had a brush with a court-martial.

When a general showed up to inspect her postal unit, she turned out only the off-duty third of her battalion for formal inspection in order to let the others keep working or sleeping.

The general, who was white, said he was going to send over a white officer to show Earley how the job should be done.

"Sir, over my dead body," replied Earley, who later remembered the general sputtering and driving away in his car.

Although the general brought charges against Earley, he quickly dropped them and later apologized. Earley said they wound up becoming friends.

The camaraderie Earley and the women in her battalion developed during the war extended to the annual reunions they held after the war. As blacks and as women, they shared a special bond.

"First of all, we had segregation to put up with," she recalled. "And the men didn't want the women in the Army; that was another battle we had to fight. I know some of those women didn't love me, but we stood together on things that mattered, such as doing a good job."

Earley left the service in 1946, retiring as a lieutenant colonel, the highest-ranking black female officer in the WACs. She returned to her teaching career and married a physician-in-training .

Earley wrote a book about her experiences, "One Woman's Army: A Black Officer Remembers the WAC," which was published in 1989 and reissued in soft cover in 1996.

She is survived by her husband, Dr. Stanley A. Earley Jr.; a son, Stanley A. Earley III; a daughter, Judith Earley; two brothers, Bishop John Adams and E. Avery Adams; and a sister, Dr. Lucy Rose Adams.

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