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Black History Month: WAC Corporal Lena Derriecott served as a nurse assistant in the U.S. Army Air Forces during World War II

  • Published
  • By Kevin M. Hymel
  • Air Force Medical Service History Office
During World War II, Cpl. Lena Derriecott learned a hard lesson about segregation in the U.S. military. Derriecott, an African-American woman, volunteered in 1943 for the U.S. Army Air Corps Women’s Army Corps. She reported for duty at Douglas Army Air Field in southern Arizona where she served as a nurse assistant at the base hospital.

One night, Derriecott joined a group of other African-American women headed to the base movie theater, but the movie was interrupted before it began.

“Ladies, you’re not supposed to sit there,” a military policeman told the group. Sitting with Derriecott was a lieutenant named Clark, the base’s chief WAC.

“What do you mean?” asked Clark. “They are with me and I am the officer in charge.” But the MP stood his ground, “What I mean to say is, colored people aren’t supposed to sit in this section.”

Derriecott chose the Army Air Forces to honor a friend who died on his first combat mission. She wanted to be a nurse, so once she completed basic training at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, she headed to Douglas Army Air Field, a training base for Martin B-26 Marauder pilots and crews, where she served at the base hospital. “They didn’t have the ability to give me the nursing courses,” she explained. Derriecott performed patient care duty anyway.

Derriecott treated airmen, crews, and their families by taking blood pressure, vital signs and patient histories, and taught feminine hygiene to new recruits. When not working in the hospital, she worked on the flight line, tracking B-25 fuel levels. She and her fellow WACs also engaged in weekly drill and ceremony graduations for bomber pilots.

As Derriecott performed her duties, she had no idea the base was segregated until that night in the theater. An enraged Clark said back to the MP, “I want to talk to the colonel in charge. Show me where the phone is and I’d like to speak to him on the phone.” When she finally got the colonel on the line she told him, “Me and my girls have been highly insulted. Three of us here are officers.” The colonel responded with silence. “If you’re going to treat us like second-hand citizens,” Clark continued, “I’ll pull my unit out of here. We came here to help and we expect to be respected.” Clark hung up the phone and the women marched out of the theater.

Clark’s stand had a ripple effect that Derriecott could not have foreseen. The next day, the colonel announced that the theater would no longer be segregated, as well as the bowling alley and the cafeteria. Within a year, African-American pilot candidates arrived from Fort Huachuca to train on B-25s. Derriecott had been on the forefront of desegregating American military bases.

After almost a year at Douglas, Derriecott signed up for overseas duty. After going through deployment training and passing the screening process, she shipped out to Birmingham, England, arriving in on Feb. 14, 1945, where she and her fellow WACs were organized into the 6888th Central Postal Battalion, the only all-female, all-black unit to serve overseas. The unit organized warehouses full of mail and shipped it to frontline Soldiers. Given only six months to complete their task, they accomplished it in three.

Derriecott returned home in 1948 and worked as a nurse in Los Angeles, California, until her retirement. Today, at age 96, she looks back positively on her military service. She remembers the incident in the Douglas movie theater like it was yesterday, when she witnessed the desegregation of a military post, years before President Harry S. Truman officially desegregated the military in 1948.

When asked what advice she would give a young lady joining the Air Force, she said, “I would tell her to make sure she’s ready to make the necessary changes in her lifestyle.” She also thinks it is important, “to be able to help in some way in whatever it takes to be a part of our nation.” She considers the Air Force a good career move and a serious commitment. “As long as you have that commitment,” she explained, “that’s a good thing.”