(CNN) — Only four women rest under the long rows of white marble headstones at the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, France, where nearly 9,400 other Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country are buried. Three of the women are African American.
Pfc. Mary J. Barlow, Pfc. Mary H. Bankston and Sgt. Dolores M. Browne endured stifling segregation while serving their country, yet with their comrades they maintained a lifeline between American troops and their families back home.
The women were members of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, known as the Six Triple Eight, the only all-Black Women’s Army Corps unit to serve in Europe during World War II.
The battalion — which served in England and France — had a tough assignment: clear up an overwhelming backlog of letters and care packages that had been building up for years. Mail was considered a lifeline and a morale booster — a reminder of home and the country those troops were fighting for, and the Army wanted the job done fast.
The Six Triple Eight often worked in cold, dark conditions for months, but completed their mission even earlier than expected. But when they came home, the unit of African American women was treated to little or no fanfare.
“I’m sure that you have seen, as many people have seen, how service people were heralded,” said former WAC Lena King, 97, one of 11 known survivors out of the 855-member battalion. “But our dismissal was quiet and unpronounced. We simply came home.”
More than 6,500 African American women served during World War II. Many enlisted out of a patriotic sense of duty for a country that kept them segregated.
While the Six Triple Eight has received accolades in recent years — including the Army’s Meritorious Unit Commendation in 2019 — supporters are behind bills calling for the battalion to receive the Congressional Gold Medal for their extraordinary service, joining the likes of the Tuskegee Airmen and Montford Point Marines.
“I believe that people are aware that Black women served during World War II,” said retired Army Col. Edna Cummings, who advocates for the women. “But I do not believe they know the full scope of their service.”
This effort to further recognize what Black women endured and accomplished during World War II comes as people across the country are, once again, in a reckoning over race.
King said she believes the service of African American women and men in WWII should have translated into a broader impact on society.
“The thing is you think that all of that is going to make things better for racial equality and so forth, but it has no effect really, she said. “It’s painful to see that we still haven’t really brought it together.
A call for women to join up
In February 1945, the 6888th — commanded by Maj. Charity Adams (later Adams Earley), was sent to England, where a shortage of personnel was wreaking havoc with the mail system.
The battalion knew it needed to excel. They adopted the motto, “No mail, low morale.”
Meanwhile, White WAC units had already been deployed overseas, according to official accounts.
“Mary McLeod Bethune and the first lady Eleanor Roosevelt said the women needed a meaningful assignment to prove that black women could support the Armed Forces just as the white women did,” said Cummings who co-produced a documentary about the Six Triple Eight. Bethune was a friend and adviser to the first lady and a member of President Franklin Roosevelt’s “Black Cabinet.”
As Allied troops advanced across Europe, ever-changing locations hampered mail delivery.
Upon arrival in Birmingham, England, the women were shocked to see the mail piled up in hangars and warehouses.
“Oh, God, it was terrible,” said former WAC Indiana Hunt-Martin, one of the few surviving Women’s Army Corps members of the 6888th.
They worked three shifts a day, using information cards and serial numbers to match mail with millions of troops and personnel, according to the US Department of Defense.
The addresses on many of the letters were hard to follow. Loved ones used a slew of different nicknames for service personnel, using “Bob, Rob, Robby, Bert, and so forth, just for Robert,” Adams Earley said in her memoir, “One Woman’s Army: A Black Officer Remembers the WAC.”
Countless soldiers had the same full name. Adams Early said at one point there were 7,500 Robert Smiths.
Hunt-Martin remembers that the men on the front moved around constantly.
“Sometimes, I would send a letter out, by the time I look around (it) was back because he’d moved again,” said Hunt-Martin.
With the work underway, the WACs did enjoy days off, allowing them to see London, go to the theater or travel. Locals invited them to dine in their homes on the weekends, the women remembered.
“The English people were friendly,” said former WAC Fannie Griffin McClendon. “One of the many things they wanted to know is why we were all separated. We didn’t have that answer for them.”
Segregation and inequality for Black WACs
Like much of the country, the military was segregated throughout World War II. Black service members faced continuous racism, and the women of the 6888th have sharp memories of being segregated on trains, spat at and demeaned by White men and women.
Even the battalion’s boss was not exempt.
Adams Early wrote that a general told her: “I’m going to send a white first lieutenant down here to show you how to run this unit.”
Her response? “Over my dead body, sir.”
Former WACs said the prejudice particularly stung because they’d signed up for the war effort out of a sense of duty. Many also looked for opportunities long unafforded to most Black women, who were often relegated to service roles such as maids and cooks.
Those with undergraduate and higher degrees said that they were hoping the military would profit from their education and provide training for more skilled work. According to historian and author Sandra Bolzenius, most went unsatisfied.
“There was not a lot of excitement for Black women to be in the military,” said Bolzenius, arguing that military leaders didn’t like to be forced to change hiring practices. “Unbelievable, because the crisis, the shortage of troops was real.”
Increased pressure to desegregate the military came from Black newspapers, activists and the NAACP even before the US entered the war.
When thousands of Black women were allowed to enlist in 1942, they had to have separate lodging and training classes and could not dine with their male or White female comrades.
Bolzenius said many White post commanders were reluctant to request Black WACs join their bases after graduating from basic training. They did not want to go to the trouble of setting up separate quarters, schedules and classes for Black WACs. If they did, commanders relegated them to lower skilled roles as orderlies, laundry workers and cleaners.
In March 1945 in Massachusetts, about 100 Black WACs went on strike refusing to show up for work at a hospital in Fort Devens. They’d been been promised jobs as technicians but were assigned menial roles instead.
Four of the women were court-martialed and convicted, but the War Department ended up dismissing the charges against them after a popular outcry, detailed in Bolzenius’s book, “Glory in Their Spirit: How Four Black Women Took on the Army During World War II.”
“You know, there was a confidence about these women that led them to strike,” said Bolzenius. “They knew that the way other people were looking at them was completely wrong.”
The 6888th completes its mission
While unequal conditions were a shock to some, they were expected by those accustomed to the nation’s racial divide. But, in speaking to CNN, the surviving members of the Six Triple Eight spend far more time remembering their contributions to the war effort.
They processed an average of 65,000 pieces of mail per shift (which would net out to nearly 6 million pieces of mail per month.) They finished their first assigned six-month stint in three months, then completed assignments in Rouen, France, and Paris, according to the US Army Center of Military History.
Their accomplishments showed the world how well Black women could perform in the military, said retired US Navy Cmdr. Carlton Philpot.
“As with most initiatives for minorities and women, if the initial group fails, then that’s not a good thing,” said Philpot, who was instrumental in the construction of a monument honoring the Six Triple Eight at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, in 2018. “But if they’re successful, they may not get full credit, but it does open the hearts and minds of a lot of good people.”
The war ended and the unit completed its mission in early 1946. Soon after returning to the US, Adams Earley become the first African-American woman promoted to lieutenant colonel. She later became a college dean and community leader.
Lena King continued her education in England. Fannie McClendon went into the Air Force and later had an antique shop. Hunt-Martin worked for the Labor Department. Some were active in the civil rights movement.
But three women never came home. Pfc. Mary J. Barlow, Pfc. Mary H. Bankston and Sgt. Dolores M. Browne were killed in a jeep accident while on duty in France in July 1945.
The women of the Six Triple Eight organized to prepare the bodies for burial and held memorial services.
The story of the 6888th is solidified in history by those graves at Normandy and they are now a greater part of the story of World War II.
“We want to leave a legacy that we have done something that is remarkable,” said King. “We’ve done so much I think to show that we are just as interested and love our country as much as anyone else.”