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Wineka column: Bertha Harrison Dupre: a veteran who won’t be forgotten

Submitted photo Bertha Harrison Dupre

SALISBURY — I’m not writing about Bertha Harrison Dupre because it’s Black History Month. I’m not writing about Bertha because she was 97 when she died back in December.

I’m accused of writing about older people too much.

I’m not writing about Bertha because she became a full-time art student at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte when she was well into her 80s. I’ve never seen any of her studio art, said to be mainly portraits and scenery.

I’m not writing about Bertha because she’s a veteran of two wars — World War II and Korea — though that would be reason enough. And for 11 years, Bertha rode the rails as an Amtrak supervisor, overseeing service employees on the Montrealer’s regular trip between Washington, D.C., and Montreal.

The stories she must have told people about those days.

I’m not writing about Bertha Harrison Dupre as much as I’m writing about a simple act of remembrance and gratitude.

When she died Dec. 19, 2018, at Concord Transitional Healthcare, Bertha was alone. She had been a ward of the state for five years, and it’s tough to say, but there was no one who could claim the body or pay for a funeral.

Rhonda Fernandez, her social worker, and Lori Hinson, a Veterans Service Officer in Cabarrus County, knew this.

They reached out to Carolina Cremation in Salisbury for assistance with her body. The family-owned Carolina Cremation and Powles Staton Funeral Home in Rockwell have built a reputation for serving the families of veterans.

Andrea Lefko, funeral director at Carolina Cremation, was struck about what Fernandez and Hinson already had told her about Bertha and how she had defied the odds much of her life, especially during World War II.

Though her body arrived at Carolina Cremation Jan. 3 and was cremated with an American flag, Lefko wanted to do more.

She contacted Russ Roakes, a fellow funeral director at Powles Staton Funeral Home. With Will Staton’s encouragement, the pair started finding out everything they could about Bertha and arranging for a more appropriate farewell.

“It’s just the right thing to do,” Roakes says. “We can’t let someone like that be buried alone.”

On March 22, an 11 a.m. procession led by Rowan County Sheriff Kevin Auten and including Patriot Riders on motorcycles and patriotically wrapped Freightliner military rigs will travel with Bertha’s ashes from Rockwell to the Salisbury National Cemetery.

There, Dupre will be given a service with full military rites.

The Rowan County Veterans Honor Guard will fire volleys of salute, and the North Carolina Army National Guard will take part in the ceremony before Bertha’s urn finds its resting place in the National Cemetery’s columbarium.

Lefko and Roakes would love to see a big crowd along the route and at the cemetery that day.

“As we’ve started to tell people, everybody’s wanted to be a part of it,” says Roakes, who is heavily involved in the Veterans Funeral Care organization for funeral directors. “… We want the public to join us at the cemetery to remember her.”

A company called UPD Urns of Manassas, Virginia, has donated Bertha’s vessel. Instead of sending flowers to the funeral home or National Cemetery on March 22, Lefko and Roakes are asking people to make memorial contributions to their local high school’s ROTC program.

The Messenger company has contributed a registry book for the day of the ceremony.

In their free time, Lefko and Roakes keep trying to find out a more about Bertha.

“Just from the little we’ve gotten,” Roakes says, “she sounds like an amazing woman.”

Born in Washington, D.C., and growing up in Pennsylvania, she enlisted in the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (what became the WAC) as Bertha Craig Harrison on Sept. 1, 1943.

She was 22.

Prior to that, as many women did after the United States entered World War II, Bertha had been a clerk and typist for the War Department in Washington.

As a WAC, she served with the all-black 6888th CPD Battalion.

“CPD” stood for Central Postal Directory, and Bertha essentially worked in the military post office — an essential job as troops desperately looked forward to letters and packages from home.

Bertha rose to the rank of master sergeant. In 1945, as the war in Europe wound down and ended, she served overseas (mostly in France) from March 25 to Dec. 3, according to service records.

“For a female to earn any rank, much less a black female to earn that rank, was just unheard of,” Roakes says.

According to her 1950 application for World War II compensation filed with the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, Bertha entered the service in Washington, D.C., and received her honorable discharge at Fort Dix, New Jersey, Dec. 7, 1945 — exactly four years after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

More than a year before Lefko and Roakes had ever heard of Bertha, Jennifer Cunningham with Cabarrus County Human Services contacted the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis to obtain copies of Bertha’s military service records.

Cunningham heard back from technician Paul Simon in a letter dated Jan. 9, 2018.

“The military record needed to answer your inquiry was located in the area that suffered the most damage in the fire that occurred at this Center on July 12, 1973,” Simon wrote.

“A portion of the record was among those recovered; however, it was damaged in the fire.”

Simon continued that he was enclosing copies of Bertha’s separation documents, “but the photocopies are the best we can obtain.”

They were charred all around the edges.

David Perlmutt, a writer with the Charlotte Observer, featured Bertha in an Oct. 6, 2008, story about her being a UNCC art student at age 87.

She told Perlmutt she had briefly attended college classes in Maryland after she retired in 1984, but it wasn’t until Bertha was living in Charlotte and had witnessed her granddaughter receive a graduate degree that she decided to seek a college degree at such a late age.

After World War II, Perlmutt reported, Bertha returned to work for the government. At the Veterans Administration, she helped with the paperwork for veterans going to school.

She also entered the WAC reserves, leading to her being called back into duty at the beginning of the Korean War. The WAC sent her to Fort Belvoir, Virginia, where she ordered food for the fighting forces.

Bertha followed up that yearlong service by going to the quartermaster offices in Washington and Philadelphia.

Over the next 30 years, she would marry and help in the raising of two stepsons. She worked as a housekeeping supervisor at Bowie State, then for Amtrak. Roakes says she moved to North Carolina in 1992 in search of warmer weather.

Roakes also has heard there’s a theater seat at Central Piedmont Community College in Bertha’s name, and Lefko tracked down that she was one of the veterans who flew on the Elizabeth Dole-sponsored Honor Flight from Charlotte to Washington on Oct. 20, 2009.

Wait a minute, I thought, when I heard about the Honor Flight. I was on that trip.

Photographer Jon Lakey and I delved into our archives, and his photos show Bertha in the crowds at the airport and watching quietly during a changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington.

I didn’t write about Bertha Dupre that day, either.

I wrote about remembrance and gratitude.

Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263 or mark.wineka@salisburypost.com

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