The 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion
Black Leaders, Inspirational Women / By Kate Kelly
The 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion was an all-female black military unit created in 1944. These women are among the unsung heroes of World War II. The work they accomplished—hand-processing warehouses-full of undelivered mail–brought comfort to countless American soldiers who longed for connections to home.
The Mail Couldn’t Get Through
“Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night stays these couriers from the swift completion of their appointed rounds” was once written about the delivery of the mail.
But no one foresaw the problems presented by a world war. The Allied troops were on the move in the European theater, and it became increasingly difficult for the military to maintain basic services. Priority was given to food, equipment, and supplies. The mail was set aside.
Many of the soldiers serving overseas were barely 18 or 19 years old. They had never been out of the country, and they were thrust into a war for which no one could have been psychologically prepared. They were tired, cold, hungry, dirty, and lonely–simply hoping to survive. Cigarettes and reading material helped pass some of the down time, but the men longed for news from home. How was Dad feeling after his surgery? How big was Fido now that he was almost a year old? And what about his girl? Was she still waiting for him?
In December 1944, the Battle of the Bulge began. By this time, the military was overwhelmed with other issues, and they began storing the unsorted mail in warehouses. One storage area was in Birmingham, England. The mail filled three warehouses, and the pile grew.
Yet even military leaders focused on battle strategy knew one thing: the morale of the men mattered. The soldier who worried about family members or pined for a girlfriend had trouble keeping his mind focused on fighting. News from home would help. There needed to be a way to sort through that mail.
Creation of the 6888th
At the start of World War II, there were no female military units. By May 1942, Congress realized the commitment that a war on two fronts required. They approved a bill that provided for a volunteer civilian women’s unit, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. Initially, this provision was intended for white women only. After pressure from African American newspapers and activists, including First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and her friend, educator Mary McLeod Bethune, it was decided that 10 percent of WAAC volunteers would be African American.
In the summer of 1942, the leader of this group of African American women was specified. Charity Adams (1918-2002), a well-educated young woman who was studying for her Masters in Psychology at Columbia when she joined the WAACs.
By the summer of 1943, the WAACs were given military status and renamed the Women’s Army Corps. This encouraged active recruitment, and many women joined. But like the regular Army, the WACs were segregated.
By November 1944, a battalion of 824 enlisted African American women, including 31 officers, were gathered to form the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion. Though mail would be their priority, the Six-Triple Eight, as they were called, went through basic training just as all military did. Theirs took place at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, where they exercised, maneuvered through obstacle courses, and learned about gas masks and made long marches with various weights of rucksacks on their backs.
Prior to departure for Europe, the battalion needed a plan for self-sufficiency. Segregation meant they could not benefit from support services for whites. They needed to assign everything from meal preparation to guard duty and driving to members of their own units.
Bound for Europe
On February 3, 1945, the postal battalion boarded the ship, the Ile de France, bound for Glasgow, Scotland. The women would then be taken to Birmingham, England, for their first assignment.
Their trans-Atlantic journey was a dangerous one. German U-boats (submarines) patrolled the Atlantic continuously. The Ile de France masterfully maneuvered a zig-zag course to make it across the ocean, but the women were well aware of the danger. Then on the day they reached Glasgow, a German “buzz bomb” exploded overhead, sending everyone for cover.
The battalion took the train to Birmingham where they were housed in an old schoolhouse with little heat. Showers were available only in the courtyard.
6888th and Processing the Mail
By necessity, their workplace was within one of the warehouses. In order to work through the night, the windows needed to be blacked out so that light from the warehouses would not make them a target for night bombing raids. The black-out process remained over the windows day and night, reducing the light the women had to work with.
The work before them included three warehouses of still-bagged mail. As they began sorting, it was clear that rodents had rooted through the bags looking for treasure—packages of food.
The women quickly organized a system with each person assigned to one of three round-the-clock shifts. There were no computers to keep track of anything, so their system was paper-based and done by hand.
They received files of the approximately 7 million Americans serving in the European Theater. (They also were sorting for the Army and Marine Corps, and the Red Cross volunteers.) Because the troops had been on the move since the mail was last sorted, very few of the files were up-to-date.
The information on each soldier had to be processed separately. The women of the 6888th had to identify where each man’s unit was currently fighting, and whether or not he was still with them. If he was injured, was he in a hospital in Europe or already on the way home? And of course, the information was constantly changing.
The names of those who were killed in action had to be noted, and their mail needed to be returned to the sender.
The women developed “Current Information” cards for each soldier. That way the night shift could be made aware of locations identified by the day shift, and vice versa.
Other Complications of Sorting
But there were other complications:
Some names like “Robert Smith” and “Tommy Jones” were very common. According to an article in Our Heritage Magazine, there were 7500 Robert Smiths serving in the European Theater. It took detective work to figure out which soldier the letter or package was intended for.
Not all letters were addressed properly. The elderly grandmother or a little sister may have simply addressed the envelope with the unit number and a name: Junior or Bob, Rob, Bobby, Robby, Bert, or Robert…
The women of the 6888th were fully invested in their work, knowing that they were making a difference in soldier morale. Private First Class Dorothy Turner, a member of the 6888th, is quoted on a military website describing the excitement of holding in her hands the cards with each soldier’s information:
“There was part of the history of these men in the files. You could see the last time that this man got mail, and you were so determined to find him because you had this pile of mail [sometimes packages] that he should have gotten over the years…”
Though the U.S. government encouraged the use of V-mail, there was still heavy use of regular mail. In 1944, for instance, Navy personnel received 38 million pieces of V-mail, but over 272 million pieces of regular first class mail.
The V-mail found their way to warehouses, too. Once the microfilm with the letters arrived in England or France, a processing company transferred the filmed letters to paper and put each letter in its own envelope. All these were bagged and sent to the same warehouses where the 6888th was processing other mail.
Each shift processed 65,000 pieces of mail. The government expected the task in Birmingham to take six months, but within three months, the women were ready for another assignment.
More Mail in Rouen, France
For the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, the next location was Rouen, France. They landed at Le Havre in early June. On their trip inland to Rouen, they were shocked by the scenes of destruction, seeing firsthand the toll the war had taken on towns and countryside.
The townspeople of Rouen welcomed them warmly, but the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) military police discovered one problem. Since the war was winding down, soldiers were being released. The news that women were arriving in Rouen brought an influx of soldiers. Because WAC military police were denied guns, they developed another way to protect the 6888th. They trained in jujitsu (martial arts) to keep out unwanted visitors.
In Rouen, the battalion suffered a tragedy. While on leave, three of the members were involved in an auto accident and were killed. The military had no provision to help with funeral arrangements, so the battalion took up a collection. They gave the three women a proper burial in France. Major Charity Adams notified the families with the sad news.
The 6888th to Paris
After Rouen, the battalion moved to Paris where they were delighted to be in their first decent quarters since arriving in Europe. They were housed at the Hôtel États-Unis and treated well. It was with some sadness that the government began sending sections of the battalion home. Major Adams retained some members to help with the mail. They supplemented with some of the locals, all of whom were eager for work.
Active Support of Education
On August 6, 1945, an article about the 6888th appeared in The New York Times. The 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion ran a two-week fund raising drive to help fund college education for other African Americans. The news article reported that a check for $4504 was sent to the United Negro College Fund with a letter from Major Adams:
“We as Americans, realizing the importance of education, felt that this was our chance to make the future more promising for Negro youth.”
Belated Honors in 2009
The women of the 6888th returned home without fanfare. While individuals within the battalion had been recognized with various service medals, there was no overall salute to a unit that made such a difference to the soldiers on the battlefields.
In February of 2009, the Freedom Team Salute, a commendation program run by the Army, organized a recognition for the 6888th to be held at Arlington National Cemetery. Alyce Dixon (1907-2016) of the 6888th was among the attendees. She was 101 at the time. Mary Crawford Ragland, 81, and Gladys Carter, 87, were also in attendance.
In his remarks, Colonel David Griffith, Director of Freedom Team Salute, noted:
“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 theater.”
One week later, a women’s history event was held at the Women’s Memorial at Arlington. There, First Lady Michelle Obama added her thanks to all women who served. Both Dixon and Ragland attended that event as well.