Sorting the mail, blazing a trail: African-American women in WWII

Story by Elizabeth M. Collins, Soldiers, Defense Media Activity

“I’m going to send a white first lieutenant down here to show you how to run this unit.”

The general’s yell hung in the air, shocking the Soldiers lined up at attention. As chew-outs go, telling a major, a battalion commander, no less, that a lieutenant would be taking over was particularly degrading.

But the general didn’t plan to send just any lieutenant. He planned to send a white lieutenant. The implication, of course, was that it would be a white male lieutenant and he was dressing down one of the highest-ranking African-American women in the Army, the commander of 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion. The battalion was the only black Women’s Army Corps unit deployed to Europe in World War II.

“Over my dead body, sir,” replied Maj. Charity Adams, not sure if she was most insulted by “white,” “first lieutenant” or “white first lieutenant,” she explained in her memoirs, “One Woman’s Army: A black officer remembers the WAC.” She knew she might be court-martialed, so she planned to charge the general, whom she never names, with violating the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Command’s rules against explicitly stressing segregation.

Battalion Commander Maj. Charity Adams and Executive Officer Capt. Abbie Noel Campbell inspect the first Soldiers of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion to arrive in England, February 15, 1945. The only African-American Women’s Army Corps unit sent to Europe during World War II, the 6888th was responsible for clearing years’ worth of backlogged mail in both England and France. Viewing their jobs as crucial to morale at the front, they processed some 65,000 pieces of mail a shift and worked three shifts a day. At the same time, the Soldiers faced constant prejudice and broke gender and racial barriers. (Photo courtesy of the National Archives)

Battalion Commander Maj. Charity Adams and Executive Officer Capt. Abbie Noel Campbell inspect the first Soldiers of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion to arrive in England, February 15, 1945. The only African-American Women’s Army Corps unit sent to Europe during World War II, the 6888th was responsible for clearing years’ worth of backlogged mail in both England and France. Viewing their jobs as crucial to morale at the front, they processed some 65,000 pieces of mail a shift and worked three shifts a day. At the same time, the Soldiers faced constant prejudice and broke gender and racial barriers. (Photo courtesy of the National Archives)

Forming the WAC

Adams was the first African-American woman to be commissioned into the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, in the summer of 1942. Including African-Americans in the WAAC had been a challenge, but ultimately African-American newspapers and activists, including Mary McLeod Bethune, a member of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Black Cabinet,”and her good friend First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, prevailed. A quota was set for 10 percent of the total WAAC, which became the WAC about a year later. There was space for 40 in the first officer training class, and it was clear that they would have to be the best of the best.

Second Officer (1st Lt.) Violet Hill poses after completing the first officer candidate school class for the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, in August 1942. African-American women were allotted 40 slots in that first class, and they had to be well-educated and have professional experience. Later in the war, Hill served as a captain and commander of Company D, 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion. (Photo courtesy of Violet Hill Askins Gordon via the Veterans History Project, Library of Congress)

Second Officer (1st Lt.) Violet Hill poses after completing the first officer candidate school class for the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, in August 1942. African-American women were allotted 40 slots in that first class, and they had to be well-educated and have professional experience. Later in the war, Hill served as a captain and commander of Company D, 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion. (Photo courtesy of Violet Hill Askins Gordon via the Veterans History Project, Library of Congress)

“I was sure I would never pass,” recalled Capt. Violet Hill, Company D commander. “At that time, I had completed two years of college. … Their goal was 40 Negro women who would then form the officer corps that would train the subsequent enlisted women. … Their standards, their expectations and their hopes were high. … They preferred women who had not only the education background but also some maturity and work experience, which would be an asset in embarking on an endeavor that was experimental and had a lot riding on it.”

“There’s no doubt that in that first class, both African-American as well as white women, they did really select the best that they could to give the Women’s Army Corps the best possible chances,” agreed Dr. Francoise Bonnell, director of the U.S. Army Women’s Museum, noting that the women were all professionals, some with masters’ and law degrees.

Segregation

While the WAAC/WAC was segregated with separate “Negro” companies and barracks – Adams writes of her shock at being told to step aside with all the other “colored” girls – it was less so than the rest of the Army, according to Bonnell. The WAC was so small that all of the Soldiers usually trained together, for example, and an attempt to designate colored tables in the cafeteria lasted only a few days when that first group of African-American WACs refused to eat. And in one of her assignments, Adams worked in an all-white office.

That’s not to say the women didn’t encounter blatant racism. Travel, especially throughout the south, could be especially humiliating. “The incident that I’ll never forget is when there were four of us having to change trains,” remembered Staff Sgt. Evelyn Martin. “I was informed by a train conductor, we – and he used the n-word – could not ride the train. I kept my composure and I said, ‘We have to ride it. The military has to know where we are.’ In order to ride that train, the officer of the day … and an MP and the conductor – they found a piece of wrapping paper and some cord and separated us from the white passengers.”

Adams tells similar stories, and as she rose through the ranks, her very uniform started to raise questions: “I was waiting with my parents in the small, dirty, and crowded ‘colored’ waiting room in the Atlanta railroad station,” she recalled. “There were very many military personnel roaming around the station … so the MPs were constantly moving throughout the crowd. … Two white MPs … addressed me.

“‘Some people have – there was a question – ’

“‘Yes, I see. You want to know if I really am a major in the U.S. Army. … Names? I can see your rank. Your serial numbers? Your unit? Location? The name of your commanding officer?’” Adams asked, advising the men to report themselves before she had the chance. They learned a lesson, she wrote, adding that another MP refused to question her when confronted by a suspicious passenger.

Those reactions were harbingers of the surprise and hostility she and her executive officer, Capt. Abbie Noel Campbell, encountered when they flew to Europe in January 1945 in advance of their battalion. They were, she wrote, “among U.S. military personnel who could not believe Negro WAC officers were real. Salutes were slow in coming and, frequently, returned with great reluctance.”

First in Europe

The two women were literally the first black WACs in Europe and, technically, they weren’t supposed to be there. Although black Army nurses served in combat zones, when African-Americans had first been allowed to join the WAC, it had been with the proviso that they could never serve overseas. It only happened because of the “needs of the Army,” said Bonnell. “That’s how we oftentimes see policies and progress. … After the D-Day invasion … the mail very quickly became backed up. … There was also a push by African-American groups to try to force the War Department to allow and to actually create requisitions for African-American WACs in the European Theater. … Eventually, based on this need, a requisition was sent out for 800 women.”

Many of the women were hand-picked. They were blazing a trail and they would have to excel. They had to be, as Adams told her troops, “the best WAC unit ever sent into a foreign theater. … The eyes of the public would be upon us, waiting for one slip in our good conduct or performance.”

“One day I came home from work … and the girls said … ‘Your name’s on the board,’” remembered Staff Sgt. Essie O’Bryant. “There was a list of girls selected to go overseas. … I went in to my commanding officer (Capt. Campbell) … and she said, ‘I selected the girls that I would like to go overseas with me.’ … It was an honor for her to think that much of me.”

An overwhelming task

After long, fraught journeys across the Atlantic that involved shadowing by German U-boats and a V-1 “buzz” bomb that landed just as some of them disembarked in Scotland, the Soldiers of the 6888th arrived in Birmingham, England, in February 1945. They were stationed at an old school and it must have been a dismal prospect: Mattresses were made from straw, showers were in the courtyard and heat was almost nonexistent. In a large warehouse, stacked ceiling-high were piles of mail, years’ worth of letters and packages waiting to be delivered to millions of service members, civilians and aid workers all over the Continent.

French civilians and Soldiers from the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion sort mail in the spring of 1945. The only African-American Women’s Army Corps unit sent to Europe during World War II, the 6888th was responsible for clearing years’ worth of backlogged mail in both England and France. Viewing their jobs as crucial to morale at the front, they processed some 65,000 pieces of mail a shift and worked three shifts a day. At the same time, the Soldiers faced constant prejudice and broke gender and racial barriers. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Women’s Museum)

French civilians and Soldiers from the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion sort mail in the spring of 1945. The only African-American Women’s Army Corps unit sent to Europe during World War II, the 6888th was responsible for clearing years’ worth of backlogged mail in both England and France. Viewing their jobs as crucial to morale at the front, they processed some 65,000 pieces of mail a shift and worked three shifts a day. At the same time, the Soldiers faced constant prejudice and broke gender and racial barriers. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Women’s Museum)

It was a massive undertaking, but the women knew mail from home meant everything to Soldiers on the line, so they buckled down and worked three shifts a day, seven days a week. (This was actually the reason the general accused Adams of incompetence. He expected to inspect the whole battalion and was livid when only a third of the Soldiers were available. He later apologized and told her he respected her for standing up to him.)

“They supplied us with files, the names of men who were enlisted in the Army in the European Theater,” remembered Pfc. Dorothy Turner. “You know what was so exciting about that? There was part of the history of these men on the files. … You could see the last time that this man got mail and you were so determined to find him because you had this pile of mail that he should have gotten over the years and packages. … You knew that he had not gotten any news from his family or friends … and you were determined to try to find him.”

It required immense attention to detail. For the same reasons the mail had gotten backlogged in the first place, many Soldiers simply didn’t have the time to keep their address cards up to date as their units advanced, which sometimes required two or three changes a week. Soldiers also changed units. And then there were the name duplications.

“At one point,” Adams wrote, “we had more than 7,500 Robert Smiths. … There were, of course, tens of thousands of Roberts with other last names. Moreover, there were variations of first names, nicknames, that are used in the United States: Bob, Rob, Bobby, Robby, Bert, and so forth, just for Robert.”

In addition to tracking down Soldiers, the WACs also had to sensor the mail, blacking out sensitive information. They had to print V-mail cards. (The military would photograph certain letters and send them overseas on microfilm. It saved space and weight, but was time-consuming.) They processed some 65,000 pieces of mail a shift and finished a six-month job in three. Then they were off to Rouen, France, to tackle another backlog, and then Paris.

Tragedy struck in France, where three of the WACs died in a jeep accident while on furlough. They were buried in Normandy.

Furloughs were common, however, and the women found time to relax and travel despite their heavy workloads. The 6888th veterans also all spoke of how friendly the people of Birmingham in particular were, welcoming the WACs into their homes and treating them with a respect many had never experienced at home – or with their own countrymen in Europe.

Cpl. Alyce Dixon (right) poses with other members of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion during World War II. One of the last living veterans of the battalion, Dixon, who served from 1943 to 1946, passed away at the age of 108, Jan. 27, 2016. (Photo courtesy of the late Alyce Dixon)

Cpl. Alyce Dixon (right) poses with other members of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion during World War II. One of the last living veterans of the battalion, Dixon, who served from 1943 to 1946, passed away at the age of 108, Jan. 27, 2016. (Photo courtesy of the late Alyce Dixon)

Standing up to racism

Although black and white WACs had initially used the same Red Cross hotels and recreation facilities without incident, one day Red Cross officials proudly announced that they had procured a separate hotel for the 6888th in London, suggesting the WACs would prefer it that way. It was a nice hotel, but Adams told them, “as long as I am a commanding officer … not one member of that unit will ever spend one night here.”

As far as she knew, no one ever did. It was, she wrote, “an opportunity to stand together for a common cause.”

After the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion set up its facilities at Rouen, France, it held an "open house," which was attended by hundreds of African-American Soldiers. Pvt. Ruth L. James of the battalion area is on duty at the gate, May 26, 1945. When the 6888th arrived in Rouen in the spring of 1945, it caused a sensation among African-American Soldiers, who were so happy to see girls from home that they crowded the gates daily, causing such a disruption that the battalion sometimes had to call in military police. It had its own MPs, but they were not allowed to carry firearms. Instead, the women learned judo. (U.S. Army photo courtesy of the National Archives)

After the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion set up its facilities at Rouen, France, it held an “open house,” which was attended by hundreds of African-American Soldiers. Pvt. Ruth L. James of the battalion area is on duty at the gate, May 26, 1945. When the 6888th arrived in Rouen in the spring of 1945, it caused a sensation among African-American Soldiers, who were so happy to see girls from home that they crowded the gates daily, causing such a disruption that the battalion sometimes had to call in military police. It had its own MPs, but they were not allowed to carry firearms. Instead, the women learned judo. (U.S. Army photo courtesy of the National Archives)

The final insult came on the troop ship home. Adams, who would soon be promoted to lieutenant colonel, was the highest-ranking woman aboard, leaving her in command of not only her unit, but also a white Army Nurse Corps detachment. They refused to accept Adams’ authority. Tired and fed up, Adams struggled to keep her temper under control:

“If you cannot go home under my command, I suggest you pack your belongings. … We sail at midnight. You have twenty minutes to get off. I don’t care whether you go home or not, but if you go, you go under my command.” Adams turned to make a dramatic exit and almost ran into the ship’s captain. He corrected her: The women would only have 17 minutes to disembark. No one did.

“What’s more important? The military policies and customs and courtesies or blatant racism?” asked Bonnell, noting that military courtesies usually won out. She explained that after the war, many of the WACs used their GI Bill benefits for college and even graduate school, becoming educators, lawyers, community leaders and social activists. (Adams herself became a college dean.)

“The experience of African-American women at this particular time lays the groundwork for change, not only for their race, but also for women in general,” she continued. “We see progress in terms of the changes in military policy and opportunities taking place for women in part because of the challenges women experienced in World War II, none more so than African-American women.”

 

Editor’s Note: One of the last veterans of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, Cpl. Alyce Dixon, died at the age of 108, Jan. 27, 2016, as Soldiers began work on this story. All of the veterans’ quotes come from oral histories supplied by the Veterans History Project and Lt. Col. Charity Adams Earley’s memoirs. If you or someone you know served in the 6888th, we want to hear from you. Leave a comment below or share your story on our Facebook page.

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