The Mail Must Go Through.... To Our Soldiers in WWII
“Neither rain nor snow nor hail nor sleet” can stop the U.S. Postal Service—or so the motto goes—but what about war? And what about the mail getting through to our soldiers during the war—World War II, that is? It wasn’t up to mail carriers—or “mailmen,” to use the vernacular of the day. It was up to soldiers such as company clerks to see that the mail got through.
But often it didn’t. And that’s where the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion came in.
The battalion, a division of the WACs (Women’s Army Corps), was composed of all black members, 855 of them to be precise. Some were enlisted; some were officers. Their leader was Major Charity Adams Earley. The 6888th was the only all-Black, all-female battalion operating overseas during WWII.
As a self-sufficient unit, the “Six Triple Eight” contained some cooks and mechanics, but the majority of its members were postal clerks. Their motto was, “No mail, no morale,” and they did their darnedest to help morale by not just delivering mail but tracking down service members to whom mail had been scantily or badly addressed, and seeing that they got their precious letters from home.
With the support of Black newspapers and of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, the WACs enlisted Black women for this service. Those members of the 6888th who were not already in the WACs did their basic training in Georgia. Others joined the Six Triple Eight from positions already in the WACs, but now signed up for the more hazardous job overseas.
Departing the USA on February 3, 1945, the Six Triple Eight sailed for Glasgow on the Ile de France, arriving on February 14. The voyage was not without its perils: the ship encountered several German U-boats during the crossing but took evasive action and, thankfully, arrived safely. From Glasgow the battalion journeyed to their ultimate destination, Birmingham, by train.
In the converted hangars that were serving as a temporary post office, these WACs were aghast to see letters stacked to the ceiling, including some that had been there for as long as two years.
It was the Six Triple Eight’s job to correctly route these letters and packages, a job made more difficult by the way some were addressed—for instance, with only a first name, with a very common name, or with a nickname.
Apparently lacking confidence in the Black women to do the job right, a white general tried to send a white officer to show the WACs how to get it done properly. This didn’t go down well with Commander Earley. Her exact words were, “Sir, over my dead body, sir!” Apparently, they indeed did know what to do and how to do it: The Army had calculated that sorting and routing the mail would take six months; the Six Triple Eight got the job done in just three months—this despite the fact that they were working under adverse conditions. It was winter when they arrived, and the converted hangars where they worked were unheated.
As the unit was a segregated one, the Six Triple Eight slept and ate in separate locations from the white, male soldiers. They were housed in what had previously been a school building. The officers stayed in nearby houses.
Having cleared the postal backlog in Birmingham, the 8666th was sent to Rouen, France, on a similar mission, again travelling first by boat and then by train. In Rouen the postal situation was in some ways worse than in Birmingham: Some of the undelivered mail was three years old!
Since MPs in the WAC unit were not permitted weapons, they use jujitsu when men harassed and threatened them.
Although they attacked the backlog with their usually efficiency, by the time they’d done so, the war had come to a close. The women were sent to Paris, where they were housed sumptuously in a hotel and given first-class treatment. Due to the war’s having ended, the battalion was reduced by 300 WACs, with another 200 due to discharge soon. In February of 1946 they were brought back to American shores at Fort Dix. Although there was no public recognition at the time, the Six Triple Eight’s members had at least been recognized during their service, awarded the European African Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, the World War II Victory Medal, and the Good Conduct Medal.
Does the expression “Better late than never” resonate with you? It took until February 25 of 2009, but at that time, at an event in Arlington National Cemetery, at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial, the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion finally—if belatedly! —got the recognition they deserved. Three former members of the Six Triple Eight were still alive and able to attend. Two of the three were also honored by then-president Barack Obama and first lady Michelle.
Then, on November 30, 2018, Fort Leavenworth dedicated a monument to the women of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion. Again, better late than never. The 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion and the Black women who sorted the soldiers’ backlogged mail under arduous conditions at least lives on in memory.
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