This Black History Month, Wounded Warrior Project salutes hidden figures in the United States military. This installment honors the Army’s 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion.
“The unit was congratulated by the theater on its ‘exceptionally fine’ Special Services program. Its observance of military courtesies was also pronounced exemplary, as were the grooming and appearance of members and the maintenance of quarters.” – Mattie E. Treadwell, historian of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC)
Signed. Sealed. Undelivered.
Birmingham, England. 1945. The thick of World War II. An entire planet on edge from being plunged into uncertainty about daily survival and the future.
Back home, civilians fought a war of a different kind. Riddled with worry and anxiety over whether they would see brave loved ones again, they poured their concern and love into millions of letters, notes, gifts, and photographs to freeze moments in time.
Warehouses and hangars in Birmingham, England were transformed into makeshift orphanages that held lonely tenants of a different kind: stacks of unopened mail that held these frozen moments. Forgotten gifts that had not found their rightful homes with frightened and homesick soldiers, government employees, and Red Cross workers.
The constant influx of mail was like the flow of an enraged river.
The challenges were many.
The march of Allied forces across Europe played out like a tragic game of three-card molly: ever-shifting locations for mail delivery meant staggering delays in troops receiving mail. Americans who shared names in the millions of Americans serving in the European theater made mail sorting a nightmare.
The psychological impact of not receiving mail was inevitable: low morale among soldiers. One general estimated a dismal six-month processing time for the backlog.
Who would take on what had been labeled a “personnel problem?”
The Army’s personnel shortages in the postal division were not new. Despite multiple requisitions to secure additional, qualified workers, the chaos of the mail system lingered.
The creation of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) turned out to be timely for reasons that could not have been foreseen at its inception in 1943. The WAC was born out of the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, which had been created a year before but lacked official military status.
The 18-week WAC training consisted of three tiers: basic, physical, and specialist. The acceptance of black women as enlisted personnel in the WAC was made possible thanks to the efforts of Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune and the support of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Unfortunately, the rest of the Army did not keep pace with this progress: black servicewomen watched their white counterparts get approved to serve overseas. Black civil rights groups pressed the War Department to extend the same opportunity to black WAC members.
The War Department finally relented in November 1944. Volunteers trickled in slowly, but an exceptional group emerged anyway: an all-black WAC battalion of 31 officers and 824 enlisted personnel. Their designation? The “Six Triple Eight,” known officially as the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion.
The battalion, which consisted of Companies A, B, C, and D, had its own headquarters for service and administrative support. A first lieutenant or captain headed each company. Lt. Col. Charity Edna Adams, a major at the time (and later Lt. Col. Charity Earley), commanded the battalion.
Although these women were tasked with support duties, they still had to be battle ready.
Low crawling under logs? No problem.
Jumping over the gaping, greedy mouths of trenches? No problem.
Marching with rucksacks that could have weighed as much as the children some of them left back home? Identifying Nazi submarines (or U-boats)? Knowing the difference between an American Winchester M12 shotgun and a German Karabiner 98b rifle? No problem.
In February 1945, the battalion’s first contingent set sail for Britain on the Ile de France on a voyage fraught with danger. (The second contingent would not arrive in Birmingham for almost another two months). Stealthy German U-boats littered the vast ocean. Upon arrival at the Scotland dock, the contingent was greeted with the kind of fireworks that did not signal the clarion call of a hero’s arrival; the explosion of a German V-1 rocket forced them to run for cover.
Birmingham was a short train ride from Glasgow, and what awaited them would have sent a lesser group running. Frigid, barely lit warehouses that wore thick coats of dust like heavily applied foundation housed forgotten packages and letters stacked taller than monuments to the führer. Unpredictable nighttime air raids meant the windows of these warehouses were blacked out so no light would show.
Untold numbers of rats did raids of their own of the packages with now-rotten sweets.
The Six Triple Eight got to work in the dead of winter in three groups alternating grueling eight-hour shifts to guarantee non-stop progress on the backlog. Draped in coats and long johns, the first significant task the women completed was a tracking system for individual service members, which solved the problem of soldiers with the same names.
That was seven million information cards to maintain.
Think warrior Dewey Decimal System.
Other tasks included redirecting undeliverable mail and packages, investigating wrongly addressed mail to determine the correct recipient, and perhaps the most tragic task of all – handling mail addressed to the fallen.
Birmingham denizens were so fascinated with the women of the Six Triple Eight that it was common for them to drop into the warehouses to watch the battalion work. These visits resulted in bonds with the local community, and the women were welcome in British public spaces. Brits even invited the women to tea in their homes.
Unfortunately, their own military was not as welcoming; segregation and second-class treatment were still a reality for the Six Triple Eight. The cafeteria, recreational facilities, and living quarters were separated by ethnicity and gender – and privilege was evident on both levels. The Red Cross’ local club and hotels welcomed black male soldiers and white female servicewomen, but not the black women of the 6888th. Major Adams led a boycott to address the disparities. In the meantime, the Six Triple Eight maintained its own facilities, including a hair salon, cafeteria, and recreational area.
Despite exemplary work on a job no one wanted and stellar upkeep of their quarters, the group still received criticism from inspectors about job performance. Dissatisfaction with the 6888th’s output was likely influenced by racist attitudes.
During one infamous encounter, Major Adams stopped a male general from inspecting the quarters’ private rooms as the women slept. Off-duty and headquarters personnel were, as instructed, in formation for inspection. The general berated Major Adams for the absence of some of the troops, who attempted to clarify that her personnel had a good reason for not being there: they were working one of the three shifts that ensured the 24-hour processing of mail.
When Major Adams told the general she was following the orders she was given, the outraged general interrupted her with a threat to send a white superior officer to show her how to do the job she had already capably been doing.
Major Adams never broke protocol when the words sprang from her mouth like the searing rounds of a Browning pistol: “Over my dead body, sir.”
Adams was almost court-martialed for the comment, but the general was convinced not to follow through with his threat. Ultimately, that same general had an about-face in attitude: he would appreciate the Six Triple Eight’s tireless work ethic and efficiency when he visited France later.
Ironically, it was a chaplain’s assignment to the battalion that interrupted operations: the women of the Six Triple Eight were required to report to him for counseling, which caused absence without leave for several unit members. Additionally, male soldiers closed ranks when black and white servicemen showed resentment and disdain toward these women’s valuable presence.
The Six Triple Eight bloomed anyway. The tracking system they innovated allowed them to process a per-shift average of 65,000 pieces of mail.
The six-month backlog that seemed at first like their very own version of Dunkirk? Gone in three months.
The women of the 6888th always kept the well-being of the soldiers at the forefront of their efforts; “no mail, low morale” became their war cry. Providing and sustaining a connection between soldiers and family was as vital to victory as an ammunition surplus.
For at least a short while, the Six Triple Eight enjoyed a golden period of appreciation.
A victory parade in Rouen, which passed Joan of Arc’s execution location, was a highlight of long-overdue celebration of these brave women. The newly freed French were not shy about showing their gratitude and respect.
Increased security was put in place around the 6888th’s compound to keep out unauthorized personnel. The sudden influx of American women in France piqued the interest of lonely servicemen.
Jiujitsu – not the firearms the WAC military police were denied – successfully kept unwanted personnel away. Yet again, the 6888th’s skill and efficiency were called upon, this time for a mail backlog that reached back three years. The Six Triple Eight enjoyed some leisure during this time: ping pong, tennis, softball, and basketball allowed for fun interruptions in work and friendly competition with their white WAC counterparts.
These women attracted so much acclaim for their athletic prowess that the European theater’s deputy commander, Lt. Gen. John C.H. Lee, delayed his train so the Six Triple Eight could travel in the special first class car he attached to the train.
It seemed inevitable that some tragedy would eventually meet the unit.
In early July of 1945, a jeep accident took the lives of PFCs Mary Bankston and Mary Barlow. A month later, Sgt. Dolores M. Browne succumbed to injuries from the accident.
The Six Triple Eight took it on their shoulders to honor their fallen sisters since the War Department did not pay for funerals. 1st Lt. Dorothy Scott found a trio of battalion mates with mortuary experience. In caskets their sisters-in-arms paid for, Bankston, Barlow, and Browne were laid to rest with honors in Normandy’s American Cemetery at Colleville-sur-Mer.
Their move to Paris in October of 1945 signaled unprecedented treatment for the 6888th: chef-cooked meals and maid service were just two of the perks that highlighted their stay. But they encountered another daunting workload along with a new challenge: deep cuts in personnel.
Reduced by almost 300, with another 200 headed home, the Six Triple Eight battled morale as low as some of the troops whose mail they sorted. Package theft added to the new backlog challenge as the women were now tasked with searching French civilians to recover items.
The last members of the 6888th arrived in the states in February 1946 to no fanfare.
No “job well done.”
No “thank you for your service.”
They were the worst kind of casualty: completely forgotten by the nation they fearlessly served.
The lone recognition the group received was Charity Adams’ well-deserved rise to the rank of lieutenant colonel.
A singular victory emerged from the legendary work of the Six Triple Eight: the general board, United States Forces European theater documented the following, based on a 1945 WAC study: “[T]he national security program is the joint responsibility of all Americans irrespective of color or sex” and “the continued use of colored, along with white, female military personnel is required in such strength as is proportionately appropriate to the relative population distribution between colored and white races.”
The Six Triple Eight still holds the distinction of being the largest group of black servicewomen to serve overseas during WWII. Only recently have these special women gotten their long-overdue recognition.
Member of the legendary Six Triple Eight, Alyce Dixon, receives one of many honors for her service.
Institutions like the National Archives for Black Women’s History, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Postal Museum, Arlington National Cemetery, and the Library of Congress have revived and preserved the legacy and heroism of the Six Triple Eight.
The last surviving member of the 6888th, Alyce Dixon, passed away in 2016 at age 108. She was America’s oldest female veteran of WWII.
All of us who come after hidden figures like the 6888th are the fortunate beneficiaries of the revolutionary steps they took in the dark. Even from the past, from the era they defied, they continue to lead the way and inspire progress so forward movement continues as a necessity for all – and not a privilege for few.