By Don Vaughan
Photo Credit: National Archives and Records Administration
During World 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 fighting for.
But as 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.
Enter 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.
The WAC 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.
But 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.
A total 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.
Among 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.
When 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.
But 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
In the 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.
The job 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 unit challenging.
The 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.
Thanks 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
By 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.
According 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.”
Their 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.”