Natchez woman who fought in all-black female battalion in WWII posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal

Published 12:42 pm Wednesday, November 8, 2023

Before the showing of his film “The Six Triple Eight” on Monday at NAPAC Museum, James Williams Theres, the film’s director and producer, stopped by the Natchez National Cemetery to honor the late Louise R. Bruce, who served with the 6888th.

Theres announced that Bruce is a recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal, an honor bestowed on her as a member of the 6888th Central Postal Director Battalion.

The medal is considered the U.S. “Congress’s highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions by individuals, institutions or groups,” according to a U.S. Senate website.

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President Biden signed the “Six Triple Eight” Congressional Gold Medal Act into law in March 2022.

Bruce (1913-1996) was one of the 855 black women in the first and only all-black female battalion who served in Europe during World War II, according to Theres.

He said her battalion cleared a two-year backlog of mail and helped to deliver more than 17 million pieces of mail near the end of the war.

Theres placed a wreath on Bruce’s grave. He was joined by G. Mark LaFrancis, president of the Home with Heroes Foundation; Roscoe Barnes III, cultural heritage tourism manager for Visit Natchez; Darrell White, local historian; Larry Smith, a retired lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army; and Kilpatrick Wilson and Ryan Hannon of the Natchez National Cemetery.

“It was an honor to recognize Ms. Bruce’s service to her country,” said Theres. “Her unit played a critical role in sustaining morale for the troops overseas in Europe during World War II.”

Smith echoed similar remarks, noting he was fortunate to participate in the ceremony. “It was an honor and privilege to pay my respects to Private First Class Louise Bruce, placing a wreath next to her headstone in the Natchez National Cemetery, recognizing her selfless and historic service in the Six-Triple-Eight during the Second World War,” he said. “As a fellow veteran, I’m sure she’d be pleased to know that her service is still recognized today and has not been forgotten by a grateful nation.”

Interestingly, Theres noted, “Bruce is buried not far from Natchez National Cemetery’s only Medal of Honor recipient, U.S. Navy black Civil War veteran, Wilson Brown.”

LaFrancis said The Home with Heroes Foundation was proud to be a part of the wreath ceremony.

The organization plans to create a photo display with the 6888th in its new Military Museum and Veterans Welcome and Information Center at 107 Jefferson Davis Blvd., he said.

“I’d like to think that maybe the 6888th might have helped my father’s mail get to him and to our family during World War II,” LaFrancis added. “These were extraordinary women.”

Another Natchezian who may have served with the 6888th was Gwendolyn Mamie Freeman Johnson (1924 – 2017), according to researcher Marsha Holder, who penned a biographical note about Johnson on Findagrave.com. When contacted by email, Holder wrote:

“I got on board to help with the 6888th Central Postal Battalion monument project at Fort Leavenworth back in May 2018. The project manager, Carlton Philpot, had talked to ‘Gwen Johnson’ previously and from their conversations and her knowledge about the group, he knew for sure she was a member of the 6888th.”

To date, no military records show that Johnson was a member of the 6888th, according to Theres.

However, her membership with the unit is strongly suggested by anecdotal evidence, he said.

Theres explained there are a few members of the 6888th who were not identified, and Johnson may well be one of those unnamed members.

Renza Grennell, mother of former Natchez Mayor Darryl V. Grennell, said in a recent interview that Johnson was married to her uncle, James Johnson, and they both served in the military during World War II. Renza said she did not know what job Gwendolyn did in the military, but she’s certain that she served with the Women’s Army Corps.

Renza said she remembers when Gwendolyn returned to Natchez after the war. “I was a little girl then,” she said. “She and her husband later moved to Chicago where she worked in the post office.”

Renza said Gwendolyn also worked in the Natchez Post Office. “She may have been the first black who ever worked inside the post office,” she said. “Then she became a letter carrier.”

NAPAC museum provided a free showing of Theres’ film on Monday, Nov. 6.

The film presented the history and cultural context of black women serving in the military during the Second World War.

In addition to interviews with the veterans, the documentary included historical photographs and stories about the challenges of the women facing segregation and other Jim Crow practices in the military.

Despite their challenges, however, the film shows that the women were not only eager to serve, but they also succeeded with their mission.

Theres noted the stories of the women have garnered praise and national recognition. He said that even Tyler Perry is working on a movie about the women of the 6888th.

Betty Lou Hicks, who watched the film, said she thoroughly enjoyed it. “Those who did not attend missed seeing a fascinating documentary,” she said. “The story is another little-known but very significant episode in American history.”

“The documentary was a deeply moving and highly interesting account of her unit, a story that everyone should see,” said Smith. “It’s a part of the Bruce family, Natchez, and American history that deserves to be remembered. I enlisted in 1983 into an Army decades after integration.

“I served alongside African American women and men of all ranks. I wish that we had been aware of the contributions of the Six-Triple-Eight and of inspirational women like PFC Louise Bruce.”