For the soldiers sent to the battlefield during World War II, one of the things that they looked forward to were the mails that they were receiving from home (unless it was a “Dear John” letter.) To make sure that these letters reached their respective destinations, units like the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion worked hard from the moment the letters were dropped in the states until they got to the troops overseas. What was more outstanding with 6888th was that it was the only all-Black and all-Women battalion of the Army Corps to serve abroad during that time.
Mountain of Letters
The US government, in February 1945, was facing yet another huge problem apart from the ongoing war. There were millions of pieces of undelivered mail intended for members of the US military, US government personnel, and Red Cross workers, all serving in the European Theater piled up in the warehouses in Birmingham, England.
There were also undelivered Christmas packages stored in airplane hangars. At the same time, a never-ending stream of letters kept on coming, adding yet another burden to the already massive backlog of mails and packages. It was not only the volume that was the problem but also the fact that most of these letters were addressed to “Smith, US Army” or “Junior, US Army.” There were 7 million American soldiers in the European Theater at that time, with common names shared by many. For instance, there were 7,500, Robert Smith. So, trying to figure out which Robert was supposed to get the package with baby pictures and which Robert should get the one with a copy of the divorce papers was not an easy task.
Meanwhile, on the battlefield, the servicemen were beginning to notice that they were not getting any mail from home. Had my family forgotten about me? Were my parents already dead? The Army official reported that the inability to deliver these letters and packages was affecting the morale of the troops. As one general predicted, their lack of reliable mail delivery would take them six months to clear and process all the backlog.
Six Triple Eight
In 1942, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps was created but without official military status, so the year after, President Roosevelt signed a law that converted the corps to Women’s Army Corps (WAC). The recruits of the WAC underwent basic training for four to six weeks, including a physical training program and then followed by four to twelve weeks of specialist training. The admittance of African-American women was advocated by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and civil rights leader Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, as segregation was still official government policy in most of the country, including the federal workforce. They succeeded, and the African-American women were enlisted as personnel and officers in the WACs. After that, organizations pressed the War Department to give these women an opportunity to serve overseas, too, just like the several units of white women that were sent prior to the European Theater.
In November 1944, the War Department finally agreed, despite being reluctant. The recruitment of volunteers was pretty slow. In the end, a total of 824 enlisted personnel and 31 officers, all African-American, showed up to be part of the WAC. Soon, the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion was created, often referred to as the “Six Triple Eight.”
At first, they worked administrative and service support. They included a Headquarters Company, as well as Companies A, B, C, and D, each with a designated captain or first lieutenant in command. The battalion was trained in Fort Oglethorpe for its mission overseas. They learned to identify enemy aircraft, ships, and weapons. They were taught to climb ropes so they could board and evacuate ships and do long marches with rucksacks.
No Mail, Low Morale
In February 1945, they sailed their way toward their enemy: A mountain of undelivered mail for the troops.
Upon their arrival in Birmingham, they were welcomed with warehouses stacked to the ceiling with letters and packages that were long due. The buildings were unheated and dimly lit, while the windows were blacked out to prevent the lights from showing from above in times of nighttime air raids, which was a common thing at that time. The rats were also in company, gnawing at boxes to reach packages of spoiled cakes and cookies. The women wore long johns and extra layers of clothes under their coats during the cold winter days and nights, as they would work in three separate eight-hour shifts round the clock, all from Mondays to Sundays.
They ever-so-patiently tracked individual servicemen by maintaining about seven million information cards that included their serial numbers so they could differentiate those with the same name. They also investigated those letters that were insufficiently addressed by checking for clues to figure out the intended recipient and performing the duty of returning mail that was supposed to be for troops who had died in service.
Despite their excellent service, the women still experienced discrimination both from white and black male soldiers who resented the fact that black women were serving in the Army. In one instance, a male general came to inspect them and chastised Major Adams because not all her troops were present. She tried to explain that the women worked on three shifts, but she was cut off with a threat of sending a white first lieutenant to show her how to command the unit. Her famous reply that almost go her a court-martial was, “Over my dead body, Sir.”
They were able to clear up the backlogs within just three months and efficiently process 65,000 pieces of mail per shift with their new tracking system. With the backlogs gone, the Six Triple Eight sailed to France on June 9, 1945, shortly after V-E Day.