In 1945, history was made when the first all-Black female battalion in the world was sent from the U.S. to serve in parts of Europe during the Second World War. Known as the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, the all-Black female battalion of the Women’s Army Corps was sent to parts of France and England to contribute to solving problems that the Second World War brought.
With the main task of clearing several years of abandoned and backlogged mail in Europe, the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion was trained and sent off to help with managing the postal service in Europe. The battalion sent to Europe was made up of 855 women who served under the command of Major Charity Williams. Their motto was “No Mail, Low Morale” and they were popularly known as the “Six Triple Eight”.
Cpl. Lena Derriecott King was one of them. Now 99 years old and one of six surviving members of the unit, King was 18 years old when she was assigned to the 6888th. King told TODAY in an interview that the shooting of a childhood friend in battle inspired her to enlist in the military.
“I was expecting to do something that would aid our country,” she said. “I felt that I needed to contribute something.”
King and the 6888th set off for Europe on February 3, 1945, and arrived in France on February 14 where they were quickly taken to Birmingham, England. “We were stationed in Birmingham, England, and of course our mission was to clear up mail that had been dormant for two years,” King said to KSHB News.
Arriving at a warehouse in Birmingham, King told TODAY that she saw “just piles and big sacks of unopened mail.”
“Some had been, you know, sort of gnawed by rats and so forth,” she said.
To make things more difficult, some of the letters came with common names such as Robert or John and so King and the members of the unit had to spend time reading the messages to find out if there is any family name. “We had three shifts a day, seven days a week, and we handled about 650,000 pieces of mail per shift,” King told KSHB.
The 855 members of the unit were given only six months to sort through the huge backlog of mail. They set a record, however. They sort 17.5 million pieces of mail in half that time. Thanks to their work, U.S. soldiers on the battlefield were able to receive their mail once again.
“We didn’t take up arms, but we kept up the morale of those who did,” King said.
Between 1945 to 1946, the majority of the women worked under the mail service while others served as cooks, mechanics, nurse assistants and other roles as and when necessary. They worked under dangerous and risky conditions in abandoned and infested aircraft and offices throughout the war. King recalled being called the N-word by a White soldier.
“I was called the N-word by a White soldier I encountered one day when we were off-duty visiting the town,” the WWII veteran told KSHB. “He was astonished to see us (Black women in the Army stationed in Europe) and said, ‘what are you doing here?’ and called me the N-word.”
Despite facing racism, the 6888th remained dedicated to their work and were celebrated in Europe for it. They were honored with the European African Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, the Good Conduct Medal and the World War II Victory Medal while they were still offering service. But upon their return to America, they were shunned amid Jim Crow.
“We heard nothing more about…you know, ‘Thank you for’…whatever…No parade, no nothing,” King said in an interview with U.S. Veterans.
The 6888th never got the needed recognition until recently. In 2018, a monument was erected at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, to honor members of the unit. King traveled from Nevada to attend the ceremony after having to wait for more than 70 years to be recognized. “All of us feel the gratitude of just having people know that we existed and that we might be an example of what can be done under certain circumstances,” King said.
The battalion was also given the Meritorious Unit Commendation in 2019. A documentary was made about them. The 6888th — the only all-female, Black unit to serve in Europe during World War II — was also awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by the House last month following a campaign that started long ago to recognize it.
“The Six Triple Eight was a trailblazing group of heroes who were the only all-Black, Women Army Corps Battalion to serve overseas during World War II,” Wisconsin Rep. Gwen Moore, who sponsored the bill, said, according to the Associated Press.
“Facing both racism and sexism in a warzone, these women sorted millions of pieces of mail, closing massive mail backlogs, and ensuring service members received letters from their loved ones. A Congressional Gold Medal is only fitting for these veterans who received little recognition for their service after returning home,” Moore added.
King and the other members of the 6888th continue to inspire many today, especially Black women in the U.S. military. Chief Morcie Whitley, who was the first African-American woman to achieve the rank of sergeant at Rosecrans Air National Guard Base in St. Joseph, Missouri, said the 6888th opened doors for her to be successful in the military, KSHB News reported.
“And I’m glad that I have people like them to stand on their shoulders and I hope that someday people will say Chief Whitley inspired me,” the veteran with the Air National Guard said.