The 6888th, the only female U.S. military unit to serve in Europe during WWII, on track to finally earn Congressional honors
BOSTON – Retired Major Fannie Griffin McClendon and his colleagues in the military never insisted on being the only black battalion of women to serve in Europe during World War II. They had a job to do.
The 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion has been credited with solving a growing mail crisis while in England and, upon their return, serving as a role model for generations of black women who joined the military.
For decades, however, the exploits of the 855 members have never been more widely recognized – until now.
The Senate passed a law that would award members of the battalion, known as the Six Triple Eight, the Congressional Gold Medal. The bill is awaiting a decision in the House.
It is already too late for most of the 6,888 members. Only seven are believed to have survived, including McClendon.
“Well that would be nice, but it never occurred to me that we would even qualify for this,” McClendon said from his home in Tempe, Ariz.
“I just wish there were more people for, if that comes to pass there were more people to celebrate it,” McClendon said.
The 6888th was sent overseas in 1945, at a time when African-American organizations were under increasing pressure to include black women in what was called the Women’s Army Corps and let them serve overseas.
“The command inherently knew that its overseas presence meant more than clearing this backlog of mail,” said retired Col. Edna Cummings, who was not a member of the 6888th but pleaded for recognition of his members. “They represented an opportunity for their sisters in arms in the United States who struggled to deal with racism and sexism in the ranks.”
The unit dodged German submarines en route to England and rushed to escape a German rocket after reaching a port in Glasgow.
Its members were deployed to unheated, rat-infested aircraft hangars in Birmingham, England, and were given an intimidating mission: to process millions of undelivered pieces of mail for troops, officials and employees. of the Red Cross. It had piled up and the troops complained of lost letters and delayed care packages.
Thus, the motto of the unit: “No mail, low morale”.
“They kept screaming that they wanted us to go overseas, so I guess they got us something to do overseas: take care of the mail,” McClendon said. “And there was an awful lot of mail.”
They cleared a backlog of approximately 17 million pieces of mail in three months, twice as fast as expected. The battalion then served in France before returning home.
The soldiers of the 6888th worked tirelessly, processing approximately 65,000 pieces of mail in each of the three shifts per day. Sometimes they had to resort to detective work when a package had a common name or only mentioned the nickname of a service member.
Despite their accomplishments, the unit faced questions and criticism from those who did not support black women in the military.
Housing, mess rooms and recreational facilities were segregated by race and gender, forcing unit members to set up all their own operations. The unit’s commander, Major Charity Adams, was criticized by a general who threatened to hand over his command to a white officer. She reportedly replied, “On my body, sir.” “
Like so many black units during WWII, the exploits of its members never caught the attention of their white counterparts.
“It’s sad to say they came back to Jim Crow America,” Cummings said. “Not only the 6888th, but many of our minority soldiers who returned from the war were not recognized or appreciated until years later. The Tuskegee Airmen, the Montford Point Marines – there are so many stories of color units that weren’t recognized until decades after the war.
Still, Cummings said time spent overseas with the military left a lasting impression on women, many of whom also overcome obstacles in their professional lives.
Elizabeth Barker Johnson was the first woman to attend Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina on the GI Bill. She participated in the school’s graduation ceremony at the age of 99, 70 years after graduating.
McClendon joined the Air Force after integration and retirement from the Army in 1971. She was the first woman to command an all-male squadron with Strategic Air Command.
Another unit member, the late Doris Moore, became New Hampshire’s first black social worker, here according to niece Elizabeth Pettiford, who said Moore would be honored but rarely spoke of her time with the 6888th.
“She would have said, ‘It is an incredible and wonderful honor, and I am very proud to have served,” said Pettiford, who grew up next to Moore in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. “Then she would have gone on with her life.”