Seventy-seven years after World War II, the only all-Black Women’s Army Corps unit to serve in Europe during the conflict is set to receive one of the United States’ highest civilian honors. On March 14, reports Deborah Bailey for the Afro, President Joe Biden signed into law a bill awarding the Congressional Gold Medal to the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion. Details of the formal award ceremonies have yet to be finalized.
Credited with clearing a six-month backlog of mail to American troops in just three months, according to the U.S. Army Center of Military History, the “Six Triple Eight” followed a motto of “no mail, low morale.” As the National WWII Museum notes, the women, who were stationed in Europe during the final months of the war, processed an average of 65,000 pieces of mail per shift, for a total of 17 million by the conflict’s end.
Of the 855 original members of the battalion, only a half-dozen or so are still alive today, reports Michael Casey for the Associated Press (AP). The unit was disbanded with little fanfare in January 1946, only receiving recognition, including a monument, a documentary and now the Congressional Gold Medal, in recent years.
“It’s overwhelming,” battalion veteran Major Fannie Griffin McClendon, who is 101, tells the AP. “It’s something I never even thought about it. I don’t know if I can stand this.”
Led by Major Charity Adams, the 6888th trained at Fort Oglethorpe in Georgia before sailing to Europe in February 1945. Dodging German U-boats as their ship crossed the Atlantic, the women narrowly escaped a Nazi rocket attack upon arriving in Glasgow, Scotland. From Glasgow, they traveled to Birmingham, England, where they worked in unheated, dimly lit warehouses “stacked to the ceiling with letters and packages,” per the U.S. Army Center.
The 6888th shipped out at a time when African American organizations were pressuring the U.S. government to let Black women serve overseas, wrote Casey for the AP last July.
“The command inherently knew that their presence overseas meant more than clearing that mail backlog,” retired Army Colonel Edna Cummings, who didn’t serve with the unit but has advocated for its recognition, told the AP. “They were representing opportunity for their sisters at arms back in the United States who were having a hard time dealing with the racism and sexism within the ranks.”
As members of the only all-Black, all-woman U.S. Army unit in Europe, the women faced both racism and sexism. On one occasion, a white general told Adams that he was “going to send a white first lieutenant down here to show you how to run things.” In response, she said, “Over my dead body, sir.”
Because military facilities were segregated by race and sex, the 6668th had to be “a self-sufficient unit,” per the National WWII Museum. The battalion had its own medics, dining hall, military police (trained in jiu jitsu), transportation and support services.
According to the museum, Army leaders anticipated that the 6888th would need at least six months, and likely closer to a year, to clear the mountain of mail. Instead, the unit accomplished the task in just three months, leading the Army to redeploy the women to Rouen, France, where they worked alongside German prisoners of war and French civilians until the end of the summer. When the war drew to a close, the women returned to the U.S., where they received no public recognition for the service.
Wisconsin Representative Gwen Moore introduced the bill awarding the unit a Congressional Gold Medal after connecting with one of her constituents: the daughter of 6888th member Anna Mae Robertson, now 98, reports Eleanor Watson for CBS News. The House of Representatives unanimously passed the bill in February. The Senate passed an identical bill last year.
“Facing both racism and sexism in a warzone, these women sorted millions of pieces of mail, closing massive mail backlogs and ensuring service members received letters from their loved ones,” says Moore in a statement. “A Congressional Gold Medal is only fitting for these veterans who received little recognition for their service after returning home.”