Women of Courage, Tenacity & Strength
A Debt of Honor 64 Years Past Due
By Lori Stephenson, Our Heritage Magazine
Reprinted With of Mr. Alvin C. Fagan
Commanding Officer Major Charity Adams (foreground) and Executive Officer Captain Abbie Noel Campbell inspecting the troops February 15, 1945 in Birmingham, England. Both Officers are members of the Delta Sigma Theta Sorority.
For the most part we, here in America, take the daily delivery of mail for granted. It is a pretty sure bet that if you drop a piece of first class mail in the drop box at the local post office it will make it to its destination, anywhere coast-to-coast in the USA, within 3-4 days tops. For our military men and women deployed overseas, however, mail is a highly valued and much awaited item that, even with today’s automated systems, can take weeks or more to catch up with them. When mail call comes there are anxious soldiers waiting for that “letter from home” with the latest pictures and stories of the loved ones they have left behind.
Never are these letters and care packages from home more valuable and vital to morale than when our soldiers are in harm’s way in hostile situations. This is also when it is the hardest to deliver due to a number of factors, including, but not limited to, frequent troop movements and limited supply chains and carriers. This was exactly the situation that our troops were in during the winter of 1945 in WWII. As they made their way across Western Europe and into Germany’s homeland a tremendous backlog of undelivered mail built up and the morale of the sleep deprived and battle weary soldiers was going down. Facing a severe shortage of manpower and growing pressure to give African American women a more active role in the war, the Army made an unprecedented decision and the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion (The Six Triple Eight) was formed.
The “6888” has a long list of “firsts” and accomplishments to its credit. Comprised of 855 women, of which 824 were enlisted and 31 were officers, it was the first African American all-female battalion. The “list of firsts” was contributed to by the battalion’s commanding officer Maj. Charity Adams. A member of the first female officer training class in Iowa and the first African American female commissioned officer, she also held the record for highest ranking African American female officer by the end of the war and became a Lt. Colonel.
The “6888” was the first and ONLY all women battalion to be deployed overseas. They faced life threatening conditions soon after they set sail for Europe. On their 2 week trek across the Atlantic Ocean they survived brushes with German U Boats that were close enough that their ship was forced to maneuver so sharply that it sent pots and pans clanging down to the floor. Then, upon their arrival in February 1945, they were greeted by a V1 rocket, known as a Buzz Bomb, which sent them running for shelter across the frozen slippery snow covered ground. After their eventful arrival they immediately boarded a train and headed to Birmingham, England.
Despite "close calls" with German U-Boats as they crossed the Atlantic, the courageous women of the 6888th maintained a positive attitude.
The first few days of their assignment in Europe were a whirlwind. Once the exhausted women arrived in England there was no time for relaxing and settling in. They were hurriedly assigned to their quarters and directed to their posts. Just 3 short days after stepping foot on dry ground they had already marched through the streets of Birmingham in perfect formation, prepared for and been inspected by a general, and worked at least 2 shifts each.
Their assignment was to sort and redirect the delivery of the millions of backlogged letters and packages that had all but ceased to be delivered before their arrival. Some of which had already been delayed by as much as 2 years. They immediately saw they need for a better system and went to work developing a new system that would break the bottleneck and get the stacks of mail that were packed into 3 air hangars and went from floor-to-ceiling delivered as quickly as possible. In order to do this they would need to create and maintain current information cards for each of the more than 7 million United States Army, Navy, Marine Corps, civilian and Red Cross personnel in the European Theater of Operation (ETO). Some of which would be moved and need to have their cards updated several times a month. To make matters even more challenging, many of the letters lacked proper addresses. It was not uncommon for a letter to be addressed “Junior, US Army”. Even when they were addressed with full names, it was far from easy. According to records there were approximately 7,500 “Robert Smiths” in the ETO. Each one having to be identified, tracked and kept straight.
Their working conditions in the converted hangars did not make it any easier. The windows were blacked out to prevent their detection and being targeted by night time enemy air raids. This meant no light from what little sun showed through the dismal winter skies during the day and contributed to the very low lighting conditions, which made eyestrain a constant nuisance. Heat in the warehouses was practically nonexistent during what was an unusually cold winter, even for England. This meant the women were wearing long johns and whatever else they could manage to fit under their coats, just to stave off the numbing cold.
Then there were the daily challenges of “dual segregation”. They were segregated both as women and as African Americans. The women of the “6888” were not allowed to sleep, shower or eat in the same facilities as the other female personnel and soldiers. They were housed in what had previously been a boarding school and while most of the “6888” were postal clerks, out of necessity due to the segregation, others held service and support positions and operated the 6888’s own mess hall, make-shift hair salon, motor pool, and supply rooms, making the 6888th almost entirely self-sufficient.
Major Charity Adams at the grand opening of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion refreshment bar in England.
Despite these challenges the “6888” worked tenaciously around the clock. There were 3 eight hour shifts per day, 7 days per week. Their task was daunting, but they knew that for soldiers in the field, letters from loved ones brought important personal connections that kept their morale going. Each shift averaged 65,000 pieces of mail going out to be delivered to our soldiers all across Europe. They took great satisfaction in knowing that they were able to improve the quality of life and provide some semblance of comfort to the millions of soldiers that were so far from home.
When they had been assigned to Birmingham, it was supposed to be a 6 month assignment. However, they completed their assignment in just half that time. In May of 1945, just 3 months after arriving in Europe, they had done the impossible. Their efforts were so successful that they were then reassigned to Rouen, France to get the mail moving there.
The treatment and living conditions in Rouen, and then later in Paris where they would perform their final assignment before going home, was quite different than what they had initially experienced in England. The task was still daunting, the work schedule still relentless, the segregation still present, but the overall living conditions were better than what many had experienced at home. While in France they were housed in a luxurious hotel with maids to clean their rooms and chefs to prepare their meals. No more cold drafty mess hall and the “meat of the day” was not Spam.
While in France they were invited to participate in the parade held in Rouen 'place du Vieux Marché, the historical place where Joan of Arc died. Even the parade in France was different. While they had marched through the streets of Birmingham, England it had been amid curious onlookers and the watchful eye of inspecting officers dissecting their every step. In France they were part of a celebration. People were happy and cheering and calling out good wishes. In spite of the heavy work load, for many of the women their time here would truly be “the time of their lives.”
It once again only took them 3 months to achieve the same staggering results in Rouen, France that they had in Birmingham, England. From Rouen they were assigned to Paris, an assignment which would turn out to be their last and come to an abrupt end when the war ended just a short time later. The “6888” was immediately shipped back home to Ft. Dix.
The 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion had performed above and beyond expectations. Out of the 855 members of the battalion, 3 lost their lives. Those honorable women were laid to rest in France. Upon their arrival home there were no parades. No reporters swarming them with questions or taking pictures. No crowd of people welcoming them home or congratulating them for a job well done. Only disbandment met them at Ft. Dix. The 6888th Central Postal Battalion was disbanded and the women dispersed. Some continued to serve in the military, but most retired and went home. Their story largely untold. Their sacrifice unrecognized. Their successes uncelebrated.
Left: European African Middle Eastern Campaign Center: Good Conduct Medal Right: World War II Victory Medal Medals Awarded Members of the 6888th Central Postal Battalion
Sixty-four long years later, in February of 2009, a U.S. Army support group called the Freedom Team Salute held a ceremony at the Women’s Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery to honor the women of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion. Of the 855 women who comprised the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, only 3 survivors could be located and brought to the ceremony.
Colonel David Griffith, Director of Freedom Team Salute gave the following address at the ceremony:
“For the morale of Soldiers in war time, only one thing counts more than somewhere to sleep or something to eat. That one thing is mail from home – holiday greetings, photographs, regular letters, and packages filled with items from relatives and friends. The 6888th Battalion broke all records for redistribution of mail to front line troops in the European theatre.”
“Honoring the women of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion with Commendations is long overdue. These were strong women who faced prejudice in the United States, but still managed to complete their mission, putting their Country ahead of their own trials. They did not have the luxury of working with automation equipment to help them organize, sort and distribute the millions of letters and packages that had accumulated in airplane hangars and other places in Europe. They are a true American story that needs to be told.”
We here at Our Heritage Magazine agree. Their story is one that needs to be told and the women honored for the courage, tenacity and perseverance that lead them to achieve so much in so short a time.
Photographs Courtesy of: The United States Army Women’s Museum ~ Ft. Lee, VA Visit the museum at: www.awm.lee.army.mil/
Special Thanks to Debra Jones for collecting photographs and all of her efforts to help make this tribute possible.