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Campaign aims to honor all-Black female WWII unit

Posted at 7:03 PM, Dec 31, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-31 21:03:35-05

Thousands of women from all ethnic backgrounds served in World War II, with their contributions and bravery often being overlooked.

But there's a new push to give recognition 75 years later.

The Women's Army Corps (WAC) all-Black 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion members are among those women who served.

"To understand the story of the 6888th, we have to understand what was going on in the country at the time," said Army Col. Ret. Edna Cummings. "In the United States, Jim Crow segregation was the law, so the military was segregated not only by race but also by gender."

The "Six Triple Eight" was the first and only all-Black WAC unit deployed overseas during WWII. Under the Command of Maj. Charity Adams, the 850-member group, was first sent to Birmingham, England, in 1945.

Their mission was to sort years of backlogged mail stacked in warehouses — millions of letters and packages sent to U.S. soldiers and other personnel.

"The chain of command said, 'If we don't clear this backlog, the troop morale is going to remain low because that vital communication was lost to and from the United States,'" Cummings said. "The letters weren't making it to the troops, and the troops could not send letters home — so nobody at the United States knew what was going on."

As Allied forces drove across Europe, ever-changing locations hampered mail delivery to service members.

The task was a logistical nightmare, with many letters addressed to familiar names like John Smith, or simply "Junior, U.S. Army" or "Buster, U.S. Army."

Alva Moore Stevenson's mother, Lydia Esther Thornton, was a member of the Six Triple Eight. An Afro-Mexican woman, Thornton, chose to join the Black unit over a white team when given the option.

"Just having to imagine, wherever you were serving in the European Theater, and you weren't hearing from your family," she said. "I can't imagine."

Implementing a highly-effective system, the women processed about 65,000 pieces of mail per shift, amounting to 195,000 pieces per day.

"Because of the racial segregation, they were self-sustaining. So they not only had to figure out how to direct the mail and to sort the mail and to route the mail, but they also had to be self-sustaining," Cummings said. "In Europe, the Six Triple Eight had to set up their city, a mini-installation. They had to feed themselves, take care of their vehicles, drive themselves. So there was little help."

Given a six-month deadline, they finished in three, all while fighting racial and gender discrimination.

Their pioneering service paved the way for women like Cummings, leading the campaign to recognize the unit with Congressional Gold Medal. She helped create a documentary on Six Triple Eight's story.

"Regardless of gender, race, color, creed, ethnicity, the 6888th performed above and beyond. They did something that no one else could do," Cummings said. "The 6888th broke records, mail-sorting records."

A staunch advocate of the campaign, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kansas, introduced the bill in the Senate, where it passed unanimously. He says their efforts ensured that people like his mother and father could communicate during the war.

Only six women from the 6888th are alive today.

"It's important to us because it honors our mom and what she stood for, which was the love of country, love of family," Stevenson said. "I wish she would've been here, but I know she would think it's a lot of, much to do about nothing. But I wish she would've been, been here for this."

In the House, 17 more co-sponsors are needed for legislation for a vote.