By Don Vaughan
National Archives and Records Administration
War II, few things were more precious to soldiers overseas than mail from home.
It was a lifeline that bolstered morale and reminded everyone of what they were
the war raged and American forces rapidly spread across Europe, mail distribution
faltered. By early 1945, warehouses in Birmingham, England, practically bulged
with undelivered letters and packages from home, resulting in a noticeable
decline in morale among servicemembers. Something had to be done.
the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion — the first all-female,
all-African-American unit to serve overseas during World War II. Established within the Women’s Army
Corps (WAC) in November 1944, the history-making 6888th was charged with
sorting mountains of mail and ensuring each piece was delivered properly. It
was a Herculean task that one general predicted would take at least six months
to complete. The women of the 6888th did it in three.
was established in 1943 so women other than nurses could participate in
military service. Those who joined underwent six weeks of basic training, often
followed by four to 12 weeks of specialist training. African-American women
were part of the WAC from the start, and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt and civil
rights leader Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune strongly encouraged the War Department to
send African-American Wacs overseas.
there was a proviso, reports Beth Ann Koelsch, curator of the Betty H. Carter
Women Veterans Historical Project at the University of North
Carolina-Greensboro. Because African-Americans made up 10 percent of the
nation’s population at the time, African-American recruitment within the WAC
also was capped at 10 percent.
of 824 African-American enlisted personnel and 31 officers drawn from the WAC,
the Army Service Forces, and the Army Air Forces made up the 6888th Central
Postal Directory Battalion, nicknamed the “six triple eight.” It included a
headquarters company for administrative and service support and companies A, B,
C, and D, each commanded by a captain or first lieutenant. Maj. Charity Adams
Earley, from Kitrell, N.C., was selected to command the battalion.
those who signed up was Millie Dunn Veasey of Raleigh, N.C. She saw an ad
soliciting female black recruits and learned the clerical skills she had
acquired through various New Deal programs were especially valued. Veasey, who
like many others was excited at the prospect of seeing Europe while supporting
the war effort, easily passed the physical and written tests and soon found
herself in basic training at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, after which she moved on to
Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., for mission training. Shortly thereafter, Veasey was on a
ship bound for Glasgow, Scotland. “I was seasick the entire trip,” she recalls
with a laugh. The ship arrived Feb. 14, 1945. It was an auspicious introduction
for all as a German V-1 rocket exploded near the dock, causing the new arrivals
to duck for cover.
that first contingent arrived by train in Birmingham, they often were stared at
by individuals who rarely had seen black people. But once the novelty wore off,
the women found the community extremely welcoming. Veasey made friends with a
British family named Adams who hosted her for dinner on weekends. “I was
fortunate because my experiences overseas were fairly pleasant,” she says.
that’s not to say that everything was rosy. In the U.S. and again overseas, the
women of the 6888th found themselves doubly segregated, first from the men and
again from white female soldiers. When the 6888th later was transferred to
France, the women were expected to sleep on mattress covers filled with barn
straw. Veasey wouldn’t have it. She and a few others marched right out and
found proper mattresses for all.
Tackling adversity head on
mail storage warehouses, the women assigned to sorting and delivering the mail
found literally millions of letters and packages awaiting them. Many of the
packages contained spoiled cakes and other treats — food for rats that called
the blacked-out warehouses home, reports Koelsch. Due to a lack of heat, the
women often wore long johns and heavy coats while working.
of getting the mail to its rightful recipients was complicated on many fronts.
First, there was the sheer number of letters and packages waiting to be sorted.
Making matters worse, many of the letters were addressed in an indecipherable
scrawl or were addressed only to “Junior” or “Bobby” or an extremely common
name such as Robert Smith. (An estimated 7,500 servicemen in Europe had that
name.) If the women were lucky, the address included the intended recipient’s
unit information. But the biggest problem was American forces in Europe were
constantly on the move, which made locating a specific individual in a specific
women worked in eight-hour shifts, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Individual servicemembers were tracked using nearly 7 million information cards
that included serial numbers so sorters could distinguish between soldiers with
the same name. The women played detective, searching for clues in improperly or
insufficiently addressed letters and packages. They also had the solemn duty of
returning mail addressed to servicemembers who had died.
to their detective work and a new tracking system they created, the 6888th was
able to process up to 65,000 pieces of mail per shift, which allowed them to
complete their mission in three months instead of the estimated six. Shortly
after V-E Day, the unit was transferred to Rouen, France, where yet more mail
problems awaited. There, they worked with French civilians and German POWs to
clear a backlog of letters, some of which had been left undelivered for two or
three years. From there, the women were transferred to Paris, where their work
continued. One uncomfortable aspect of the job was having to search the
war-ravaged French civilians with whom they worked to make sure they weren’t
pilfering packages meant for American troops.
Returning from war
February 1946, the entirety of the 6888th had returned to the U.S., and the
unit was disbanded at Fort Dix, N.J., with little fanfare. There were no
parades or other ceremonies, and most of the women simply returned home so they
could get on with their lives. Veasey went to college on the GI bill and worked
as an administrative secretary at St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh. She also
was a prominent figure in the civil rights movement. One of her proudest
moments, she says, was sitting next to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the
1963 March on Washington.
to Koelsch, the greatest legacy of the 6888th was the advancement of women of
color within the U.S. military. “They really did shatter the stereotypes of
African-American women and how they were portrayed in popular culture, which
was they weren’t useful for anything other than laundry and menial labor,” she
says. “They were under an incredible spotlight and had to struggle against a
lot of prejudice, but by all accounts I have read, these women talk with great
pride about their service.”
time in England and France was an eye-opening experience for the women of the
6888th, many of whom had never before been outside their hometowns. They saw
firsthand the physical devastation of war — buildings reduced to rubble — as
well as the human toll. It was something they would remember for the rest of
their lives. “The attack on 9/11 brought back memories of the devastation,”
Veasey says. “You never saw anything like it in your life.”