In her 97 years, Bertha Dupre served in World War II, rode the rails for Amtrak and, in her 80s, became a full-time student at UNC Charlotte.
But she died alone in December, with no family left to claim her body. That gnawed at a growing number of volunteers she never knew in life but who accompanied her to a final rest.
“The more we learned about Ms. Dupre, we put our minds together and said we’re going to make this special. We would give her the burial she deserves,” said Russ Roakes, a funeral director at Powles Staton Funeral Home in Rockwell, N.C.
And they did. On March 22, sheriff’s deputies escorted Dupre’s ashes from Powles Staton Funeral Home to Salisbury National Cemetery. The Patriot Guard Riders, who honor veterans, rode their flag-waving motorcycles. Freightliner, which makes trucks in Rowan County, sent patriotism-themed vehicles. And the N.C. National Guard performed military rites.
Word of Dupre’s passing at a Concord nursing home came from a veteran services officer. She asked whether Powles Staton, which specializes in services for veterans, could help.
Roakes and his colleague in a family-owned business, Andrea Lefko of Carolina Cremation in Salisbury, went to work.
Dupre raised a stepson, but he couldn’t be located at her death, they learned. Neither could a sister who was also in her 90s.
Dupre grew up in Pennsylvania and joined the War Department as a clerk and typist when war broke out, according to a 2008 Observer article on Dupre. She later joined what would become the Women’s Army Corps, and her battalion became the only all-black unit deployed to Europe in World War II.
The U.S. military was still segregated at that point, and black WACs were not supposed to be sent overseas. But the mail in Europe was piling up, so the Army deployed 800 women, many of them hand-picked for the assignment.
They were, the battalion’s commander later recalled according to a Defense Department history, “the best WAC unit ever sent into a foreign theater. The eyes of the public would be upon us, waiting for one slip in our good conduct or performance.”
In England, and later in France, the women of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion worked in three shifts, seven days a week, to sort long-overdue letters and packages for U.S. soldiers. The lack of reliable mail delivery was hurting morale, Army officials reported, according to an article posted by the U.S. Army Center of Military History.
Dupre’s service records show that she rose to master sergeant, the Salisbury Post reported. After the war, Dupre went to work for the Department of Veterans Affairs and joined the WAC reserves.
She was called back to service at the outset of the Korean War and spent a year working in Virginia.
In 2009, according to another Observer story, Dupre joined 105 Charlotte-area veterans who were flown to Washington, D.C., to visit the World War II Memorial.
The Rev. Carlin Ours, pastor of Organ Lutheran Church in Salisbury, stepped up to voluntarily lead Dupre’s service.
“God said, ‘I’ll be your family when you have no one else.’
“She stepped up for everybody else a long time ago. So that’s the last thing we can do for her, is be her family when she doesn’t have any around.”