In February 1945, warehouses in Birmingham were bursting with millions of pieces of mail intended for members of the US military, government and Red Cross workers who were serving in World War Two in Europe. Christmas packages were undelivered, and a relentless stream of letters and parcels added to the already enormous backlog of post. The mail was often poorly labelled, addressed with lines such as ‘Junior, US Army’ or ‘Buster, US Army’, while many shared common names – for instance, there were 7,500 men in the US army in Europe called Robert Smith.
A delay in receiving post was hurting morale, so something needed to be done. Enter the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, nicknamed ‘Six Triple Eight’, an all-female, predominantly Black battalion of the Women’s Army Corps. The only majority-Black, all-female battalion sent overseas during World War Two, the group – whose motto was ‘No mail, low morale’ – were responsible for the epic task of overhauling the massive postal backlog.
So who were they?
Black women had previously been barred from serving overseas
By 1945, the 7 million or so US service members and government workers stationed in Europe during World War Two were becoming increasingly frustrated at the lack of post from the US reaching them. It was estimated that the backlog would take six months to process.
The WAC had been converted from the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in 1943, but didn’t have official military status. At the same time, various African American organisations had long demanded that Black women in the WAC be allowed to serve overseas. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and civil rights leader Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune successfully campaigned for the admittance of African-American women as enlisted personnel and officers in the WAC. However, segregation was still in place.
After several units of white women were sent to serve in Europe, the War Department finally permitted women of colour to serve overseas. In 1944, the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion was created.
It was a multi-ethnic unit
Contrary to popular belief, the 6888th was not an all-Black or all-African-American unit. More recent research has certifiably shown that the battalion also contained at least one Puerto Rican and one Mexican woman.
The battalion was organised into five companies: Headquarters, Company A, Company B, Company C, and Company D. Though most of the battalion worked as postal clerks, there were also cooks, mechanics and people in other support systems in their ranks, meaning it was a self-sufficient unit.
In February 1945, the first contingent of the battalion sailed for Britain. Their ship came close to Nazi U-boats, but arrived in Glasgow in mid-February. They then travelled by train to Birmingham, and were followed by another contingent a few weeks later.
They started their own food hall, hair salon and refreshment bar
The 6888th was a segregated unit. The battalion slept and ate in different locations from the white, male soldiers. They were housed in a former school building, while officers were quartered in houses nearby.
Locals came to watch the women work. Some of the battalion made friends with the locals, and were welcomed into public spaces. Black male soldiers were allowed into a local club for enlisted soldiers, but Black women soldiers were not. As a result, the 6888th organised a boycott of the alternative segregated facilities that were offered to them. Instead, they ran their own food hall, hair salon and refreshment bar.
The days were long and workload intense
The 6888th Battalion settled in Birmingham, where they were met with unheated hangars filled with packages and letters. The buildings were cold and dimly-lit, in part because the windows were covered to prevent them from becoming a target during night-time raids. In addition, rats nibbled at packages that contained food, most of it long spoiled.
The unit was broken into three eight-hour shifts, and the women worked seven days a week, their motto ‘No mail, low morale’ serving as a motivator. The battalion created information cards with serial numbers, identified mail that was not correctly addressed and used clues to work out who it was intended for.
With their system in place, the 6888th processed 65,000 pieces of mail per shift. By May 1945, they had cleared the estimated backlog of 17 million items in just three months, rather than in the estimated six.
They faced discrimination
The unit was congratulated for its professionalism, hard work and efficiency. However, they were subject to personal prejudices from many inspecting officers. Early on in the operation, a white general criticised the head of the 6888th, Major Adams, because the entire unit wasn’t present to meet him.
When Adams explained that a number of them were sleeping in accordance with their shift pattern, the general suggested that he sent a white officer to ‘tell them how to do it right’. Major Adams famously responded ‘Sir, over my dead body, sir!’, a retort which nearly earned her a court martial.
The battalion were subject to discrimination both from other military personnel and locals, both on the basis of race and gender. However, some of the women did reportedly feel that they were treated better by the locals in Europe than in the US.
They worked in France
After the 6888th cleared the inventory in Birmingham, they sailed to France after V-E Day. They travelled to Rouen, where they took part in a victory parade and were stationed in the old French barracks. Their arrival garnered significant attention, and security in the area had to be increased.
They worked with male and female French civilians and German prisoners of war. They worked their way through another batch of undelivered mail that dated as far back as two or three years, and processed it. After completing their work in Rouen, they moved to Paris in October 1945 where they were able to enjoy a better standard of living in a hotel where they had maid service and chef-cooked meals.
They received no welcoming ceremony in the US
In February 1946, the unit was sent back to the US and disbanded at Fort Dix, New Jersey. They received no welcoming ceremony or public appreciation, and no official recognition of their accomplishments.
Their accomplishments did, however, encourage the General Board, United States Forces European Theater to adopt a policy that stated national security was the joint responsibility of all Americans, irrespective of race or gender.
They were honoured with a Congressional Gold Medal in 2022
It was only decades after their service that the women of the 6888th were formally recognised. In 1981, a handful of the women returned to England to receive honours from Birmingham’s mayor.
In 1989, Major Adams released a memoir about her experiences in the 6888th, and in 1996, the Smithsonian Institution National Postal Museum honoured Adams as the commander of the 6888th Battalion. In addition, the 6888th veterans received certificates and letters of appreciation signed by the Army Chief of Staff.
In February 2022, the US House of Representatives voted 422-0 to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the women of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion. The Senate passed a similar measure a year before.