The Hidden History of Black Women World War II Vets
Three years ago, I embarked on a project to honor the unheralded Black Women’s Army Corps World War II unit, the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, also called the Six Triple Eight. I was part of a volunteer team that raised funds to dedicate a monument in their honor at Buffalo Soldier Park in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. After we succeeded in erecting and dedicating the monument, we began another journey — to share the story of these forgotten soldiers.
After June 6, 1944, also known as D-Day, fast troop movement hampered mail delivery to service members, and the Army noticed a lack of mail was hurting morale. Several airplane hangars held undelivered mail and Christmas packages for the approximately seven million Americans (military and nonmilitary) in Europe. Moreover, a constant stream of incoming mail added to the already vast backlog of letters and packages. First lady Eleanor Roosevelt and civil rights leader Mary McCleod Bethune pressured the Army to include Black Women’s Army Corps (WACS) in the overseas war effort. Finally, the Army acquiesced and agreed to send a group of Black WACS to the European Theater of Operations to solve the Army’s mail crisis.
Fighting racism and sexism from within the U.S. Army’s ranks along with the threat of being attacked by the Nazis abroad, these soldiers succeeded where others failed.
In early February 1945 and with no training in military postal operations, the largest contingent of the Black WACS sailed from New York to Europe. Faced with the ongoing threat of attack while en route, their ship, the Ile de France, dodged German submarines or U-boats. After docking in Glasgow, Scotland, on February 12, a V-1 flying bomb or “buzz bomb” exploded nearby, causing them to run for cover.
At their first assignment in Birmingham, England, the Army gave the Six Triple Eight an unfathomable timeline of six months to clear the mail backlog. Some estimates suggest that the backlog was up to two years, with millions of pieces of undelivered mail and packages. Working in austere, rodent-infested, cold warehouses with windows blacked out to prevent Nazi detection, they tackled this arduous, no-fail mission. Making the task more difficult, many of the letters were addressed simply to “Buster” or to one of 7,500 servicemen named “Robert Smith.” Under the leadership of 26-year-old Maj. Charity Adams, they developed a sorting and routing system and completed this mission in three months. Adopting the motto “No Mail, Low Morale,” they worked three shifts daily and processed approximately 65,000 pieces of mail per shift.
On several occasions, Adams took a hard stance against the segregated military’s status quo. While stationed at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, she was accused of “race-mixing” at an officers’ club. In Birmingham, England, she stood up to a White general who was irritated because all the WACs were not available for inspection. Placing the mail mission ahead of the general’s request, she refused to interrupt their schedule for work-and-rest mail operations. Without hesitation, she responded, “Over my dead body!” when he threatened to send a White lieutenant to take her place. Adams also confronted the Red Cross in Birmingham when they attempted to have separate recreational facilities for the Black WACS.
After completing their assignment in Birmingham, the Six Triple Eight relocated to Rouen and Paris, France. While in Rouen, three WACS were killed in a vehicle accident. These WACs are three of the four women buried in Normandy American Cemetery, Colleville-sur-Mer, France. Also, while in Rouen, some of the WACs learned jiujitsu martial arts to defend themselves against unwanted advances from curious onlookers.
In early March 1946, the Army deactivated the Six Triple Eight without any recognition or praise for their service. Some of the women remained in the military and retired. Others used the GI Bill to continue their education, and most returned to society as everyday citizens, assuming leadership roles in their community, raising families, and living in obscurity without discussing their military service as trailblazers for women in the military and beyond.
Almost 76 years year after the end of World War II, the Six Triple Eight monument project evolved into countless national, international, and state commemorations, recognitions, and awards, including a Meritorious Unit Commendation, a documentary of the Six Triple Eight, and a trip to the United Kingdom hosted by the U.S. Embassy in London with a blue plaque dedication. Far exceeding the original goal to heighten public awareness about the Six Triple Eight, I am now working with Congress to obtain the Six Triple Eight the nation’s highest award, a Congressional Gold Medal. (Note: Last year, the Congressional Gold Medal passed the Senate and is scheduled to be reintroduced in February 2021.)
Personally, I am aware of nine living women, ages 97–100, from this historic unit. Of this writing, two are in failing health. I also know that our Black families have stories that, if uncovered, can lead to a path of discovery, pride, and a deeper purpose. As a retired military officer and daughter of an Army combat veteran, I personally thank the Six Triple Eight for their journey and embodiment of service and resilience. I only hope that the nation realizes the impact of their contributions and awards them the Congressional Gold Medal while some of these trailblazers are still alive.
Please contact your member of Congress and ask them to support the bipartisan Six Triple Eight Congressional Gold Medal.