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These Black women got the mail delivered in Europe in WWII. A push is on to honor the 6888th

World War Two ended Sept. 2, 1945. And 75 years later, advocates for one special unit are still fighting to get recognition for U.S. soldiers who made sure the mail got delivered in Europe.

They were members of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion -- the only Black women’s unit to serve overseas during the war.

Retired Army Colonel Edna Cummings has extensively researched the role the 6888th played in the war effort. More commonly referred to as the "Six Triple Eight," the unit was formed to clear a huge backlog of up to 18-million pieces of mail that had accumulated in warehouses and airplane hangars before and after D-Day on June 6, 1944.

“Because the military was moving very fast, rapidly throughout the European theater, it was just hard to get the mail (to soldiers in the field)," Cummings said. “There was no way to contact loved ones back home. There was no way for them to let their family members know that they were still alive.”

So the Six Triple Eight swung into action in early 1945. Cummings explained to KUOW’s Angela King how important the unit was.

"Their commander was Major Charity Adams," Cummings said. "She was the first African American woman to be commissioned in the Women's Army Corps. Interesting enough, she did not have any experience in mail operations, and neither did the 6888th. So when they got there, it was on the job training."

Angela King: And how quickly were they able to clear that backlog?

Cummings: Three months instead of the six months expectation. They formed three shifts, working 24 hours a day, and devised a system to track the soldiers by serial number. The challenge was there were a lot of military people with the same name. Some of the letters would just be addressed to Junior or Buster or John Smith. And they had to frequently open the letters to figure out who the letter belonged to. Some way they got it done -- 65,000 pieces of mail per shift, that's on average about 195,000 pieces of mail per 24 hours. And that was just in Birmingham, England alone.

*The battalion later was sent to France after Germany’s defeat.

King: And it went beyond just processing the mail for these women because this was a wartime environment.

Cummings: True. While traveling to Europe, they encountered German U-boats. And then once they landed in Glasgow, Scotland, war wasn't over. And then they got on a train to Birmingham, England. That's where they were stationed. Most of these women had never left home, let alone the United States.

King: And not having left the United States before, all they knew was the Jim Crow that they experienced in the United States. What was the reception like for them, among the people in Europe.

Cummings: They were received very well. And they did not have the same level of harassment and discrimination that they experienced in the United States. And it appears that these women had a sense of what it's like not to be judged and what it's like to be appreciated. But also due to segregation, the women could not visit military installations that had recreational activities. A lot of family members didn't know what their mothers’ experienced, or grandmothers’ or relatives’, was because of the stigma associated [with being] a woman in the military, not just unique to black women, but also some of the white women. The women in the military, some were labeled as lesbians or prostitutes. I actually read an oral history of a 6888th member, her father disapproved of her joining and said that if she joined, at least should be a well-paid prostitute. When the women appeared in country, they did encounter some harassment to the extent the commander of the unit, Major Adams, had the women learn martial arts to defend themselves against, I think the term was, “curious onlookers.” But overall the experience in Europe was pleasant. The women were proud of their service. And the attitude was “We had a job to do. We did it well, and we came home.”

King: So these women or Black WACs, as they were called, are overseas serving their country the only way it would let them. They're getting the mail to the soldiers giving them a much needed morale boost from home, which helped them bring the war to a close in 1945. What was the reception like when they came back to the United States?

Cummings: They came back to Jim Crow America. The unit was disbanded or deactivated in March 1946. And the women went on about their lives. But speaking with some of the living members, the 6888th women were empowered. They tasted freedom. They knew what it was like to be treated with respect, dignity. So they brought that sense of freedom and empowerment back to the United States.

King: So what is being done right now to try to honor these women?

Cummings: Well, the primary effort that I'm involved in is the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest civilian award in the United States. Other individuals and military units have received this award – the Tuskegee Airmen, the Montford Point Marines, the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots – and the 6888 belongs in that category. With the passing of Ms. Elizabeth Barker Johnson in Hickory, North Carolina, we have 10 living members, ages 95 to 100. So we definitely want this bill to pass while some of them are still alive and can receive this honor.

*In 2019, Senate and House bills were introduced calling for the unit to receive the Congressional Gold Medal. Reps. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, Adam Smith and Denny Heck were co-sponsors of HB 3138. The corresponding Senate bill is SB 633.

King: As a black woman who served in the Army, what does the 6888 mean to you personally?

Cummings: The 6888 meant I had an opportunity because they opened doors. After the 6888 served in Europe, the other services start allowing African American women to serve. The 6888 proved that given the opportunity and training that they could perform as well as anyone else.

King: And given your knowledge of the 6888, what’s your take on today’s situation with the U.S. Postal Service?

Cummings: I’ve seen a lot of feedback online about “You need to call in the 6888!” The 6888 understood the value of keeping people connected.

In Part 2 of this two-part series, a 98-year-old veteran who's one of the last survivors of the 6888th talks about returning home to segregated America.

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