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The Six Triple Eight, by contributing author, Karen Black
This is the story of the 850 women of the 6888th Battalion of the Women’s Army Corp, the only African American enlisted women to serve overseas in World War II.
In 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the Women’s Army Corp, referred to as the WAC. With the support of the First Lady and the cooperation of civil rights advocate, Dr. Mary McLead Bethune, permission was granted for African American women to be admitted to the Women’s Army Corp. They were, however, limited to assignments in the United States, while the white WAC could be assigned overseas. Although military segregation officially ended in 1948, it was still practiced throughout much of the military when the Women’s Army Corp was established. It took just over a year of lobbying, but they changed the rules to allow the African American women to be sent overseas.
In November 1944, approximately 850 African American WACs were assigned to the newly created 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, known as the SIX TRIPLE EIGHT. Because of long-term shortages of postal officers, mail was not being processed properly. Addresses were incomplete, assignments had changed, and soldiers had died, which meant mail needed to be returned. As a result, mail was as much as six months behind. The entire postal system was a mess. The 6888th was assigned to fix the problem. Major Charity Adam’s Earley was placed in charge of the battalion. They went to Georgia for overseas training.
After two months of training, they were sent to New York to board the ship, Ile de France, and set sail for Britain. The eleven-day trip was not without danger, with Nazi U-Boats in the area they travelled, but they made it without incident. When the ship got to Scotland, on February 14th, however, they were met by a German rocket. The explosion was close enough to sound the alarms, but no one was hurt. Soon afterward, the WACs boarded a train and headed for the central mail supply warehouse for the European theatre in Birmingham, England. The European theatre was one of two major areas of combat during World War II.
Faced with warehouses filled with letters and packages addressed to officers, enlisted men, Red Cross personnel and government employees, the assignment was to match the mounds of mail to the individual addressees. To find the soldiers, the women were given access to seven million information cards, each of which contained a name and serial number for one of the enlisted personnel. To make the assignment even more difficult, the addresses on much of the mail were less than precise. It was not uncommon for a letter or package to be addressed to “Johnny, United States Army.” Even those addresses with first and last names could be a puzzle. For example, in 1945, there were 7,500 soldiers named Robert Smith.
The SIX TRIPLE EIGHT was given six months to complete the assignment, working in cold warehouses with little light, since the windows were blacked out because of air raids. As if cold and dark wasn’t bad enough, they had to deal with the rats who found a food source in the warehouse, because of all the cookies, cakes and candy sitting in the packages stacked to the ceiling.
Undaunted, the WACs dove in. Wives, daughters and mothers themselves, many had relatives enlisted and understood the need for letters from home. Their motto became “No mail, low morale,” and they were determined to do what they could to raise morale. Working three shifts of eight hours each, seven days a week, the SIX TRIPLE EIGHT completed the assignment in three months. They averaged 65,000 matches each shift, an incredible rate, given what they had to work with.
In 2016, the SIX TRIPLE EIGHT was inducted into the Army Women’s Hall of Fame.
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2 Replies to “Have you ever heard of the Six Triple Eight?”
Fascinating history, Karen! Thanks for sharing!
Yvette M Calleiro 🙂
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Thanks, Yvette. What an incredible group of women they were!
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