Retired Major Fannie Griffin McClendon and her Army colleagues never dwelled 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 was credited with solving a growing mail crisis during its stint in England and, upon their return, serving as a role model to generations of Black women who joined the military.
For decades, though, the exploits of the 855 members never got wider recognition — until now.
The Senate has passed legislation that would award members of the battalion, known as the Six Triple Eight, with the Congressional Gold Medal. The bill is awaiting action in the House.
It’s already too late for most 6888 members. There are believed to be only seven surviving, including McClendon.
“Well, it would be nice, but it never occurred to me that we would even qualify for it,” McClendon said from her home in Tempe, Arizona.
“I just wish there were more people to, if it comes through, there were more people to celebrate it,” McClendon said.
The 6888th was sent overseas in 1945, a time when there was growing pressure from African American organizations to include Black women in what was called the Women’s Army Corps and let them serve overseas.
“The command inherently knew that their presence overseas meant more than clearing that mail backlog,” said Retired Army Col. Edna Cummings, who wasn’t a member of the 6888th but has been advocating to get recognition for its members. “They were representing opportunity for their sisters at arms back in the United States who were having a hard time dealing with the racism and sexism within the ranks.”
The unit dodged German U-boats on its way to England and scrambled to escape a German rocket after reaching a Glasgow port.
Its members were deployed to unheated, rat-infested airplane hangars in Birmingham, England, and given a daunting mission: Process millions of pieces of undelivered mail for troops, government workers and Red Cross workers. It had piled up, and troops were grumbling about lost letters and delayed care packages.
Thus, the unit’s motto: “No Mail, Low Morale.”
“They kept hollering about wanting us to go overseas, so I guess they found something for us to do overseas: take care of the mail,” McClendon said. “And there was an awful lot of mail.”
They cleared out a backlog of about 17 million pieces of mail in three months — twice as fast as projected. The battalion went on to serve in France before returning home.
The soldiers of the 6888th toiled around the clock, processing about 65,000 pieces of mail in each of three shifts a day. Sometimes, they had to resort to detective work when a parcel had a common name or only listed a service member’s nickname.
Despite their achievements, the unit endured questions and criticism from those who didn’t support Black women in the military.
Housing, mess halls and recreation facilities were segregated by race and sex, forcing the unit’s members to set up all their own operations. The unit commander, Major Charity Adams, was criticized by a general who threatened to give her command to a white officer. She reportedly responded: “Over my dead body, sir.”
Like so many Black units during WWII, its members’ exploits never got the attention afforded their white counterparts.
“It is sad to say they came back to Jim Crow America,” Cummings said. “Not only the 6888th but a lot of our minority soldiers who returned from the war were not recognized or appreciated until years later. The Tuskegee Airmen, Montford Point Marines — there are so many stories of units of color who were not recognized until decades after the war.”
Still, Cummings said the time overseas with the Army left a lasting impression on the women, many who also overcame barriers 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 took part in the school’s graduation ceremony when she was 99 — 70 years after getting her degree.
McClendon joined the Air Force after the military was integrated and retired in 1971. She was the first woman to command an all-male squadron with the Strategic Air Command.
Another unit member, the late Doris Moore, became the first Black social worker in New Hampshire, according to here niece Elizabeth Pettiford, who said Moore would be honored but rarely talked about her time with the 6888th.
“She would have said, ‘This is an amazing, wonderful honor, and I’m very proud to have served,’ ” said Pettiford, who grew up next door to Moore in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. “Then, she would have went on with her life.”
SOURCE: The Associated Press, Michael Casey