Veterans Day 2021: As an all-black, female battalion helped save the morale of soldiers in Europe in WWII

Rats infested boxes of stale cakes baked for U.S. soldiers scattered the piles of leftover mail before an all-black female battalion stepped in to sort out the mail bags and luggage. The 855 women of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion deployed to Europe in 1945, accused of ensuring that soldiers received correspondence from their loved ones.

They cut the two-to-three-year residency of mail in just three months, surpassing the six-month target set by U.S. military leaders who felt the lack of mail hurt the war effort – “no mail, low morale” was the. mantra the women employed.

Finally, more than 75 years after completing their World War II mission, the women of the 6888th are close to receiving the Congressional Gold Medal, one of the nation’s highest civilian honors.

The battalion was initially deployed to Birmingham, England, and after their success there, they were given follow-up missions in Rouen, France, and Paris to clear post offices. The troupe disbanded in 1946, and the women came home quietly without any parades or prizes to welcome them.

The 6888th Postal Postal Battalion in France in 1945.

National Archives

The Congressional Gold Medal requires legislation passed by at least two-thirds of the Senate and two-thirds of the House. A bill to award the 6888 the Congressional Gold Medal has passed the Senate, and needs 32 additional co-sponsors in the House.

The 6888 women of the 6888th were members of the only all-Black Women’s Army Corps unit to serve abroad in World War II. Like the rest of the army, Women’s Army Corps units were separated. The women worked with racism and sexism against fascism to deliver the mail.

There are only seven members of the estimated 855 members of the 6888 living today to receive the late gratitude.

In the weeks leading up to Veterans Day, CBS News spoke to one of the living veterans, as well as several family members of the women who died.

Charity Adams Earley, the unit’s commander, died in 2002. Her son, Stanley Earley, told CBS News in an interview that his mother during her lifetime was proud of her role in the unit and of the other women who together successfully helped the country during World. Second War.

“She also felt like they were in a situation where they needed to succeed,” Stanley Earley said.

“They had to succeed because the task was critical and because they were the only Black battalion deployed overseas, and it was important that they prove people wrong,” according to Earley.

“But for the most part they needed to succeed because the task had to be done,” he added.

Charity E. Adams inspects members of the 6888 assigned to overseas service.

National Archives

“Over my corpse, sir”

The battalion arrived in Birmingham, England, in February 1945, greeted by piles of mail bags stacked to the ceiling in airport hangars. Many bags contained Christmas letters, gifts, and packages of food that did not arrive at the intended U.S. troops in time for the holidays.

The Battle of the Bulge, the last major German offensive, lasted from December 1944 to January 1945. and exponentially increased the rest of mail. All of the mail shipped to the mainland for U.S. troops was sent back to England because the fighting during the battle was so severe and the end result was unclear.

The first priority the unit accepted was to deliver the Christmas parcels and letters stacked up by Christmas 1944. Then, they went on to order the rest of the piles of mail.

The women worked through the freezing cold and damp airport hangars in eight-hour shifts, ordering an average of 65,000 pieces of mail per shift.

A database of about seven million locator cards contributed to the success of the unit. The women kept track of service members by maintaining and updating the cards identifying where service members were stationed. The cards included serial numbers to distinguish between service members who had the same name, which allowed for faster ordering and delivery.

Black Women’s Army Corps Unit handling the mail

National Archives

The women worked in shifts around the clock in cold and dark airport hangars and slept when they could. The task was in such constant motion that a general was denied an opportunity to inspect the full unit because it would decrease their productivity.

A general came to inspect the unit, and the unit leader, Charity Adams, a major at the time, would not let him into the quarters where some of the women slept. She explained that the unit operated in three eight-hour shifts, so the women slept before their next shift.

The general threatened to send a “White First Lieutenant” to show her how to command the unit.

“Over my corpse, sir,” was Major Adams’s reply. He later grew to respect her, according to a report in Adams’ memoir.

6888 credited with saving marriages, families

The work of Adams and the women of the 6888 is credited with ensuring help has reached the front lines, comforting mothers and saving marriages.

In particular, Republican Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas thanked the women of the 6888 for keeping their parents together by enabling their correspondence during the war.

“Their efforts ensured that people like my mom and dad, two people who loved each other dearly, could communicate during the war while my father was abroad, as well as so many other Kansans and Americans who were separated from their loved ones,” Moran said, after his bill to award the Congressional Gold Medal to the 6888 passed the Senate.

Many of the women in the 6888 had just begun their own lives. Several were only in their late teens or early twenties when they set out for Europe with limited previous travel experience.

The 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion in England in February 1945.

National Archives

Lydia Thornton was only 19 years old when she left Arizona for Europe. Her daughters remember the stories she told about the life lessons she took from other women in the 6888 who were older, or just a little more street-smart from living in cities.

“There were women who mentored her because there are certain things a woman away from home should know, like how to walk around or what to do if a strange man approaches you on the street,” Rosenda Moore, one of Thornton’s daughters, said in an interview with CBS News.

Thornton was a birasa African-American and Mexican. She could have served in a White unit but chose to join the Black unit because of the common community, according to her daughters.

Thornton would go on throughout her life to apply the lessons she learned from mentors in the 6888 to help other women in LA. She taught language classes to mostly young Latinos learning English and encouraged them to make the most of their lives.

Inheritance of the 6888

The road to the Congressional Gold Medal and recognition was paved in large part by Retired Army Colonel Edna Cummings, a citizen activist for the 6888.

She co-produced the documentary, “The Six Triple Eight,” highlighting the unit’s achievements, and helped build a memorial at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas that lists 841 veterans of the 6888. She helped identify 849 veterans and search for the remaining six. .

One of the living veterans, Lena King, spoke to CBS News correspondent Jim Axelrod in 2019 when the effort to award the 6888 the Congressional Gold Medal began to receive attention.

King told Axelrod that she was proud of her service, saying, “That made me feel good that I did my part.”

Children of 6888 veterans told CBS News in interviews this year that their mothers did little to do their service in the war and would be surprised to receive the Congressional Gold Medal.

“In fact, if she were here today, she would say something like,‘ I don’t know what the whole commotion is about, ’” Alva Stevenson said of her mother Lydia Thornton, who died in 2011.

Despite their modesty about their success abroad, the women of the 6888 instilled values ​​in their children that inspired them to follow paths similar to those taken by their mothers.

Lieutenant Colonel (Ret) Rodger M. Matthews, the son of 6888 veteran Vashti Murphy, did not hear many stories about the 6888, but when he went to college, his mother encouraged him to join the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, known as ROTC.

“The only thing she was adamant about was, ‘That’s what you’re going to do, based on my experience,'” Matthews said, adding that he went on to serve 24 years in the Army. Following his mother’s advice to join ROTC., Matthews says now, it was the “wisest thing” he had ever done.

Janice Banyard, the daughter of 6888 veteran Anna Robertson, worked in the U.S. Post for 24 years.

“I’ve always been a people-oriented person, and I knew I couldn’t do the Army, and I always wanted to follow in my mother’s footsteps,” Banyard said in an interview. “So then the Postal Service offered the job. And then I thought what better way to help people and keep the media open.”


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