All-Black female 6888th Army battalion played major WWII role
The women of the 6888th worked in three different shifts, seven days a week, processing and delivering mail – a morale booster – to fighting troops in Europe.
Major Charity Adams, commander (in front), and Capt. Abbie Campbell, executive officer, inspect the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion in England in February 1945. Photo: National Archives and Records Administration.
6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion important to morale of U.S. forces in World War II Europe; ‘Six Triple Eight’ finally recognized by Obamas in 2009
During World War II, there was a significant shortage of soldiers who were able to manage the postal service for the U.S. Army overseas. In 1944, civil rights activist and educator Mary McLeod Bethune worked to get the support of first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, to devise a role for Black women in the war overseas. Black newspapers also challenged the U.S. Army to use Black women in “meaningful Army jobs.”
From that proactive intervention the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion — an all-Black battalion of the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) — was born. The 6888th had 855 Black women, both enlisted and officers, and was led by Major Charity Adams Earley. It was the only all-Black, all-female battalion overseas during World War II. The group was nicknamed “Six Triple Eight” and their motto was “No mail, no morale”.
The women who signed up went to basic training in Georgia. The battalion was organized into five companies — Headquarters, Company A, Company B, Company C, and Company D. Most of the 6888th worked as postal clerks, but it was a self-sufficient unit and others were cooks, mechanics, and held other support positions.
Women already serving in the WAC, like Alyce Dixon, served at different locations, including the Pentagon before they were reassigned to the 6888th.
Headed to England in 1945
The 6888th Battalion left the United States on Feb. 3, 1945, sailing aboard the Île de France and arriving in Glasgow, Scotland on Feb. 14. The Île de France encountered several German submarines on the trip, forcing the ship to take evasive maneuvers.
Upon debarkation in Scotland, the 6888th eventually took a train to Birmingham, England, where on arrival they saw letters stacked to the ceiling of the temporary post office. The temporary post office was located in converted hangars. Some letters had been in the makeshift offices for as long as two years. Army officials believed that undelivered mail was hurting morale. Many letters and packages were difficult to source, as they were addressed with only the first name of the soldier, had a commonly used name or used nicknames.
Early in the operation, a White general attempted to send a White officer to reorganize the 6888th, but Earley would have none of it, responding, “Sir, over my dead body, sir!” The battalion devised their own system to handle the backlog of mail and finished what was supposed to be a six-month task in three months in May 1945.
The women of the 6888th worked in three different shifts, seven days a week, processing and delivering mail – a morale booster – to fighting troops in Europe. Each shift handled an estimated 65,000 pieces of mail.
Segregated battalion braved frigid cold
The weather was frigid when the battalion arrived, and the women wore long underwear and coats in the unheated buildings. The 6888th was a segregated unit, sleeping and eating in different locations from the White male soldiers. They were housed in a poorly insulated former school building, with White officers and soldiers quartered in houses nearby. Some women felt that European locals treated them better than people did in the U.S.
Once the backlog in Birmingham had been dealt with, the 6888th Battalion arrived at Le Havre, France in June 1945 and then took a train to Rouen. The 6888th dealt with another backlog of mail in Rouen, some of the letters were three years old.
By October 1945, the mail in Rouen had been cleared and the 6888th was sent to Paris, where they were housed in a luxurious hotel and received first-class treatment. By this time the war was over and the battalion was reduced by 300 women, with 200 discharged in January 1946.
In February that year, the unit returned to the U.S., where they were disbanded at Fort Dix, NJ, without fanfare or public recognition for their service at the time. Later, members of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion were awarded the European African Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, the Good Conduct Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal.
Sixty-three years would pass before official recognition was accorded 6888th veterans Mary Ragland and Alyce Dixon, when the 44th president Barack Obama and first lady, Michelle Obama, bestowed long overdue honor for their service in 2009.
Content from the National Archives and Records Administration, and U.S. Army archives contributed to this post