Gwendolyn Johnson’s military service has been confirmed, she is posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal

Published 8:16 pm Wednesday, January 3, 2024

Filmmaker James William Theres believed for some time that the late Gwendolyn Freeman Johnson was a member of the World War II unit known as the “Six Triple Eight,” but his belief was based on anecdotal evidence.

On Thursday, Dec. 7, Theres learned from Johnson’s military records that she was indeed a member of the mostly Black female unit that played a vital role in the war.

“This journey has been filled with excitement,” said Theres. “Working with the National Cemetery Administration to track down Mrs. Johnson’s service discharge record from 1946 was so rewarding. And now working with the family to have her headstone reflect her military service is one of the highlights of my career.”

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Theres said his initial views about Johnson’s status were based on the research by Vietnam veteran Marsha Holder, who penned a biographical note about Johnson on Findagrave.com.

As a member of the 6888th, Johnson is posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for her service.

The medal, according to Theres, is U.S. Congress’ highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions by individuals, institutions or groups. The legislation for the medal was signed into law by President Biden in March 2022.

Johnson’s daughter, Nazarita Franklin of Vicksburg, said she was thrilled to learn about the recognition given to her mother.

“She would be very touched and proud of this honor,” she said. “It was not just about her, but over 850 other women who served. She was very proud of being a veteran and she was very happy to go overseas. She kept a lot of pictures and different mementos from her time in the military.”

Nazarita’s daughter, Bridget Franklin of Memphis, said she was “incredibly proud” of her grandmother. “She told me different stories about her service when we were growing up. She was extremely proud of the work she did. This (medal) is a very nice honor,” she said.

Johnson’s records show that she was a Private First Class in the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion. According to Theres, she was one of the 855 women in the first and only predominantly black female battalion who served in Europe during World War II.

Among other achievements, he said, her battalion cleared a two-year backlog of mail and helped process for delivery more than 17 million pieces of mail near the end of the war.

“Six Triple Eight” was the nickname given to Johnson’s battalion, whose motto was “No Mail, Low Morale.”

The Army Women’s Foundation website notes: “The unit served at home and in Europe where they sorted and routed mail for millions of American service members and civilians. By dividing their work into shifts that ran 365 days a week, the women processed an average of 65,000 pieces of mail per shift. On 15 March 2016, the U.S. Army Women’s Foundation inducted the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion into the Army Women’s Hall of Fame.”

When it comes to the Six Triple Eight, one cannot overestimate their importance to the military and to the United States’ history, said Theres.

He suggested their work had a significant impact on the morale of U.S. servicemembers and their families, even during a time of racial segregation in the military.

Theres is the director and producer of “The Six Triple Eight,” which he showed in November at the Natchez Museum of African American History and Culture.

Johnson, who passed in 2017 at the age of 92, is only one of two women from Natchez who served with the 6888th.

The other was Louise R. Bruce (1913-1996). Both women are interred at the Natchez National Cemetery.

Now that Johnson’s military history has been verified, her family can have her headstone updated to show her service with the 6888th.

“If the family desires, the National Cemetery Administration will process the newly-discovered paperwork to change the headstone at the gravesite where she’s buried with her Army husband to reflect her military service as well,” Theres explained.

Johnson’s military history is provided on her discharge document known as the “Report of Separation” form.

Interestingly, however, the form appears to be partially burned, which suggests that her records may have been part of another historic event.

“It looks like the edges of the form are burnt, which is amazing because that means the document survived the great military records fire in 1973 in St. Louis when millions of records were lost,” said Theres. “It’s another cool piece of history to add to her journey.”

Johnson was born in 1924, in Iowa. When she enlisted in the military in July 1944, she was living in Chicago, according to her military records.

During her tour of duty, she worked as a clerk typist.

The family said Johnson was stationed at in Rouen, France, when she met her husband, James Johnson, who was assigned to a transportation division, along with his twin brother, John. Johnson was a member of the Women’s Army Corps, which was known as WAC.

Johnson was honorably discharged in March 1946. Her records note that she was awarded the Victory Medal, the European-African-Middle-Eastern Ribbon, two Overseas Service Bars and Good Conduct Medal.

Johnson moved to Natchez, her husband’s home, after the war, her daughter said.

As for her career as a civilian, her family said that she worked a short time as a postal worker in Natchez.

“As far as I know, she was the first black woman to work at the Natchez post office,” Nazarita said.

Johnson spent many years working in other fields. According to the family, she worked as a financial officer for AJFC Community Action Agency before retiring in 2000.

“Even though she was not born in Natchez, she was always proud of Natchez,” Nazarita said, noting that over the years, she enjoyed her relationship with extended family in Natchez. Renza Grennell, mother of former Natchez Mayor Darryl V. Grennell, is Gwendolyn’s niece.

Nazarita said that in addition to serving her country, Johnson lived a life that had a profound influence on her family and her community.

“She was very proud of her service to our country,” she said. “She instilled in us the belief that serving your country is a good thing and she encouraged us to see that working with your community is both necessary and honorable.”