The All-Female, All-Black 6888th Battalion of World War II
We were excited to learn that actor and writer Tyler Perry’s next film project for Netflix will be titled Six Triple Eight and will tell the story of World War II’s 6888th battalion, the only all-female, all-black battalion of World War II. Perry researched and wrote the film after reading about the battalion in WWII History Magazine. We agree with Perry that the efforts of the 6888th battalion should be brought into the spotlight. Here’s a brief overview of this fascinating and little-known part of World War II history.
The Women’s Army Corps
As World War II dragged on, the U.S. military had a severe personnel problem. All able-bodied men were needed to fight the war, leaving some administrative and non-combat tasks going unattended. The solution was clear … bring in women to help take up the slack.
On July 1, 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a law to create the Women’s Army Corps, or WAC, a division of the United States Army. The WAC replaced the former Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps which was established just one year earlier. The problem with the Auxiliary Corps was that it did not have official military status. Members of the WAC had to go through four to six weeks of basic training that, like the basic training for Army soldiers, included physical and endurance training. Following basic training, many of the WAC members completed an additional four to twelve weeks of specialist training.
African American Recruits
Civil rights advocate Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune sought the support of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt to make sure that African American women could be admitted to the WAC where they could serve as enlisted personnel or officers. But this was the time when the U. S. Army was segregated. African American women were permitted to join the WAC, but not to serve in units with white recruits. All-white WAC battalions were organized, trained, and sent to serve in various capacities in Europe, but those same opportunities were not afforded to the African American recruits. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and Dr. Bethune, along with several civil rights organizations, pressured Washington to change this. In November 1944, the War Department finally agreed, but Eleanor Roosevelt was not done applying pressure. She requested that the Army give the African American WAC an important and meaningful task.
The 6888th Battalion
The War Department pulled 817 enlisted members and 31 officers from the pool of African American WAC recruits and created the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, or the Six Triple Eight, as they came to be called. The battalion was organized into a Headquarters Company and four additional units, Companies A, B, C, and D. Each company was commanded by a captain or first lieutenant. One African American woman, Major Charity Edna Adams (who later earned the rank of lieutenant colonel and changed her last name to Earley when she married) was chosen to be the battalion’s commander. For several weeks, the women of the 6888th Battalion trained in Georgia and, in January 1945, then left for Europe.
A Postal Problem
A few years into the war, the U.S. military realized it had a postal problem. Millions of letters and packages addressed to soldiers and military personnel, Red Cross workers, and government officials filled a warehouse in Birmingham, England, but that’s as far as they got. The military lacked the staff to sort all this mail and forward it to the various units stationed across Europe. The problem was only getting worse. There was a steady flow of mail coming into the warehouse, but only a trickle going out. More than 17 million pieces of mail sat untouched, some for more than two years. People were not getting their mail and it was impacting the overall morale of the troops. On top of it all, the warehouse was an unorganized mess. This was the perfect job for the women of the Six Triple Eight.
Arriving in Europe
The ship carrying the first contingent of the 6888th battalion dodged a Nazi U-boat to arrive in Glasgow, Scotland, on February 14, 1945. These women, and the remaining members of the battalion, then traveled to Birmingham by train. The enlisted members were housed in an old school building and the officers stayed in nearby houses. At all times, they were kept separate from the white U.S. soldiers stationed in the area. They worked, ate, and slept segregated from white members of the military.
At first, some of the local people eyed the African American women with curiosity. Most of them had never seen a black woman before. But the locals were warm and friendly. In fact, the women of the 6888th battalion noted that they were treated kindly and like equals by the people of Birmingham. They were welcomed into local stores and public spaces that would have been off-limits to them in the U.S. The only time they encountered racism and sexism was when dealing with soldiers from their own country.
Getting Down to Work
The warehouse was unheated and poorly lit. The windows had been blacked out to prevent it from becoming a target of nighttime bombing raids. It was also overrun with rats who had torn into packages containing Christmas cookies and candies. Wearing long underwear and extra coats, the Six Triple Eight got down to work in three shifts, working around the clock. They developed a system to identify servicemen with the same names, tracked down the correct recipient of letters that were insufficiently addressed, and returned mail addressed to fallen servicemen. The battalion understood how important it was for the soldiers to hear from their families back home. They adopted the motto, “no mail, low morale.”
A Monumental Accomplishment
The 6888th battalion completed its task of delivering the backlogged mail in half the anticipated time. In just three months, they developed a card system with information on more than 7 million servicemen and processed more than 17 million pieces of mail. Each seven-hour shift handled approximately 65,000 letters and packages. They were so efficient that the battalion was sent to France to clear the backlog of mail that had accumulated there as well. The 6888th battalion was disbanded in February 1946 after the members returned to the United States. Aside from a pat on the back for their hard work, the battalion received little recognition for their contribution to the war as the only all-female, all-black battalion from the United States serving overseas. It is high time that their story was told and we eagerly await Tyler Perry and Netflix’s Six Triple Eight release.