By Phil Devlin.
Of the 9,387 Americans buried in the American cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer overlooking Omaha Beach, only four are women.
Two are WACS from Connecticut, but little is known about them.
(Nov. 10, 2021) — The D-Day invasion of Normandy took place 74 years ago this year on June 6, 1944. That invasion began an Allied assault on Normandy that was to last through the summer of 1944, claiming more than 200,000 American casualties.
Of the 9,387 Americans buried in the beautiful cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer overlooking Omaha Beach, 161 are from Connecticut; 19 of those men died on D-Day itself, 18 at “Bloody Omaha.” Only four women are buried in the Normandy cemetery, and two of them — Sgt. Dolores Browne and PFC Mary J. Barlow — are from Connecticut. Both are of African-American descent.
Browne, Barlow, and Mary H. Bankston of New York were all members of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion. All three were buried in Colleville-sur-Mer together. All three were killed in the same Jeep accident. All three were members of the first all-female, all-African-American battalion to serve overseas.
Formed at the urging of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the now famous “Six-Triple Eight” was part of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) created by legislation in 1942. Despite the political, economic,and social restrictions endured by African-American women at the time, many were eager to serve. Elaine Bennett, a sergeant in the 6888th, was quoted as saying that she wished to “prove to herself and maybe to the world that we could give what we had back to the United States as a confirmation that we were full-fledged citizens.” It is easy to imagine that Bennett’s sentiment was commonly felt in her unit.
The battalion quickly swelled to a total of 831 enlisted personnel and 31 officers. Battalion commander, Col. Charity Adams Early of Ohio, was the highest-ranking African-American woman in the Army at the time. In 1982, she was listed by the Smithsonian Institution as one of the 110 most important Black American women of all time!
The “Six Triple Eight” was responsible for sorting and forwarding mail to American soldiers — a critically important job for the morale of the American soldier at war, as homesick soldiers valued nothing more than hearing from their loved ones. Often working in dark, cold conditions and with bombs bursting nearby, the 6888th labored in three shifts around the clock to clear backlogs of mail sent to GI’s, handling millions of pieces. Besides dealing with many inadequately addressed letters, their job was often complicated by people sharing common names; for example, there were 7,500 Americans named “Robert Smith” serving in Europe during World War II! Using a unique number assigned to each soldier, the 6888th sorted them all out and got them their mail.
First stationed in England and then in Rouen, France, the 6888th Battalion met all of the challenges posed to it. It was in France, however, that Dolores Browne, Mary Barlow, and Mary Bankston were involved in a Jeep accident. Both Marys were killed instantly; Dolores died from her wounds five days later on July 13, 1945. In an indignity that would not be tolerated today, the members of the 6888th Battalion had to raise money to fund the cost of their comrades’ funeral. French citizens also contributed to help pay for the funerals.
Mary J. Barlow is buried in Plot A, Row 19, Grave 30. Two rows behind her in Plot A lie the remains of the fourth American woman buried at Colleville-sur-Mer — Elizabeth A. Richardson, 27, an American Red Cross volunteer from Mishawaka, Indiana. Liz was killed in a plane crash near Rouen on July 25, 1945, just over two weeks after the Jeep accident that claimed the lives of the three other females buried in the cemetery. Sgt. William R. Miller, her pilot, is buried behind her.
More than 16 million American men and women served in the armed forces during World War II. That number includes 210,000 men and more than 3,500 women from Connecticut. Just over 5,300 men and women from Connecticut lost their lives in World War II; of those, 161 died during the Normandy campaign.
We do know that Dolores Browne and Mary J. Barlow, members of the only all-Black, all-female Army unit to serve in World War II, were among that 161. However, details about their personal lives, including what towns in Connecticut they come from, are very difficult to find.
Notes, Sources, and Links:
1. The best source for information about the 6888th Battalion is Brenda Moore’s 1996 book entitled To Serve My Country, To Serve My Race.
2. There are 11 American cemeteries in France — five for WWII.
3. Unlike Dolores Browne, Mary Barlow, and Mary Bankston, much more is known about the personal life of Elizabeth A. Richardson of Indiana. To read an excellent article about her, go to this site: www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2007/fall/lip
4. NAACP Creek Connection March 2009 Newsletter.
5. “The 6888th Central Postal Battalion” by MSG Shirley A. Smith