WWII black women’s unit recognized with congressional honors
BOSTON — The House voted Monday to award the only all-female black unit to serve in Europe during World War II with the Congressional Gold Medal.
The 422-0 vote follows a long campaign to recognize the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion. The Senate passed the law last year. The unit, known for short as Six Triple Eight, was responsible for sorting and routing mail for millions of American servicemen and civilians. Only half a dozen of the more than 850 members are still alive.
“It’s overwhelming,” said Maj. Fannie Griffin McClendon, who is 101 and lives in Arizona, when told of the vote. “It’s something I had never even thought of. I don’t know if I can bear this.
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The 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion was credited with solving a growing mail crisis while in England and, upon their return, serving as a model for generations of black women who joined the military.
But for decades, the exploits of the 855 members have never been more widely recognized. But that changed several years ago.
A monument was erected in 2018 in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas to honor them, and the 6888th received the Meritorious Unit Commendation in 2019. A documentary “The Six Triple Eight” was made about them. We are talking about a movie. Retired Army Colonel Edna Cummings was among those defending the 6888th.
“The Six Triple Eights were a group of pioneer heroes who were the only all-black female battalion to serve overseas in World War II,” said Wisconsin Rep. Gwen Moore, who sponsored the bill after was contacted by 6888th member’s daughter Anna Mae Robertson.
“Faced with both racism and sexism in a war zone, these women sorted through millions of pieces of mail, closing huge mail backlogs and ensuring service members received letters from loved ones” , she continued. “A Congressional Gold Medal is appropriate only for those veterans who received little recognition for their service after returning home.”
The House also voted Monday night to rename the Central Park Post Office in Buffalo to the “Indiana Hunt-Martin Post Office Building” after veteran Indiana Hunt-Martin, a member of the 6888th. Hunt-Martin died in 2020 at the age of 98.
“Throughout her life and military service, Indiana Hunt-Martin was a victim of racism and sexism, but no discrimination prevented her from serving her country,” said New York Democratic Rep. Brian Higgins, who sponsored the post office bill and was also a co-sponsor of the Congressional Gold Medal Bill, said in a statement. “Her courage and bravery paved the way for future generations of African American women serving in the military.”
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The 6888th was sent overseas in 1945, at a time when there was increasing pressure from African American organizations to include black women in what was called the Women’s Army Corps and allow them to join their white counterparts in the ‘foreigner.
The unit dodged German U-boats en route to England and rushed to escape a German rocket once they reached a Glasgow port.
They were deployed to unheated, rat-infested aircraft hangars in Birmingham, England, and given an arduous mission: to process the millions of undelivered mail items for troops, government workers and the Red Cross. The mountains of mail had piled up and the troops complained of lost letters and delayed care packages. Hence their motto, “No mail, low morale”.
They cleared a backlog of about 17 million pieces of mail in three months, half of the expected time. The battalion would continue to serve in France before returning home. And like so many black units during World War II, their exploits never caught the attention of their white counterparts.
Despite their accomplishments, the unit endured questions and criticism from those who did not support black women in the military.
Lodgings, mess halls and recreational facilities were segregated by race and gender, forcing them to set up all their own operations. The unit’s commander, Major Charity Adams, also came under fire from a general who threatened to hand over his command to a white officer. She reportedly replied, “Over my corpse, sir.”
Many women have had great success after leaving the military.
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 graduation ceremony at the age of 99 – 70 after graduating. Hunt-Martin worked for the New York State Department of Labor for 41 years.
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 member of the unit, the late Doris Moore, became New Hampshire’s first black social worker, her family said.
“This is a long overdue honor and recognition for the women of the Six Triple Eight, including New Hampshire’s Doris Moore,” New Hampshire Democratic Rep. Chris Pappas said in a statement. “Doris and her sisters in arms were pioneers and patriots who answered the call to service. It is even more remarkable that their sacrifice and service in defense of freedom came at a time when many of the very freedoms they fought for were not yet available to them.