Daughter of Virginia veteran recounts mother’s service in ‘6888th’ Black female WWII battalion
The battalion could soon be awarded the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal
RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT) - An effort is underway to honor the only all-Black, Women’s Army Corps (WAC) unit to serve overseas in World War II. Legislation could be passed as soon as this month to award a U.S. Congressional Gold Medal to the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion.
“It was the best time in her life,” Portsmouth resident Anita Fletcher said of her mother Audrey Lucas Whitney, a veteran of the unit.
Whitney left her family in Norfolk at 21 years old to deploy overseas with the 6888th. The 855 women were the only African American unit in the WAC to serve abroad in the European theater during World War II.
Their mission was to disperse a mountainous backlog of mail to service members desperately awaiting any word from loved ones.
“It was a lot of work they had to do,” added Fletcher. “They said things were stacked to the ceiling.”
The millions of idle letters and packages held perhaps the only motivation left for troops surrounded by warfare and death.
“Some of them were getting killed. Just to see something positive from home gave them the strength to keep moving on,” she said.
Fletcher shared a close bond with her mother, who ran a loving - yet tight - household, drawing from her unique military background.
“We didn’t get away with leaving the house without making the bed up before we went to school,” Fletcher said with a smile.
The ‘Six Triple Eight,’ as the unit was known, surmounted racial and gender barriers to serve their country and fight fascism. It was segregated by race and sex, like the entire Army at the time.
The battalion dodged enemy German U-boats to cross the Atlantic Ocean, arriving at a packed airplane hangar in England in 1945. The monumental task of distributing the mail was expected to take at least six months.
“Rats and roaches; she never complained about anything,” said Fletcher of her mother’s stories of her deployment.
The unit followed its motto, “no mail, low morale,” tirelessly. The women worked around the clock, acting as their own mechanics, medics and many other roles necessary.
The battalion, led by the first Black WAC captain, even developed their own system for sorting mail and locating troops. They were able to clear more than 65,000 letters per shift.
Whitney stoically kept up her spirit and faith amid the freezing cold and vermin-infested conditions. She wrote on the back of one photo showing her washing dishes outside in steaming hot water, “it was worth it.”
The Six Triple Eight dispersed the entire backlog in an astounding three months, breaking all Army records for sorting mail. They successfully distributed more than 17 million mail pieces, in England alone.
But there was no parade or public recognition for the servicewomen when they returned home. Three were killed while still serving with the unit in France. The U.S. government would not pay for their bodies to be returned home. Members of the battalion pooled their money for a burial, reportedly at the historic Normandy American Cemetery in France.
“That’s how it was during that time,” said Fletcher.
Whitney would go on to earn an associate’s degree, marry and have four children.
Fletcher knew her mother had served during WWII but didn’t realize the depth of her landmark involvement until her mother was in her final years. Fletcher had begun researching old pictures and military documents, realizing her mother’s significant contribution.
Whitney ultimately developed dementia, but the memory of her fearless battalion, marching in unison, could not be stolen by the illness.
“That was the only thing that made her light up like a Christmas tree,” Fletcher described when she would play old news clips of the Six Triple Eight online for her mother. “She said, ‘Do you see me!’ She was so excited.”
Whitney passed four years ago. There are now just six surviving members of the battalion still here to tell their stories.
Now, 76 years later, the U.S. Senate passed a bill to award them the Congressional Gold Medal, an ultimate honor of national recognition and gratitude. The measure still needs to pass in the House of Representatives to be made official. For Congressional Gold medals, a two-thirds majority is required in both the Senate and the House to get the bill to the president’s desk.
The 6888th was awarded a Meritorious Unit Commendation by the Army in 2019. A monument in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, was also dedicated to the battalion in recent years. But the Congressional Gold Medal would be the most notable and widespread honor.
As of Thursday morning, supporters of House Bill 1012 said enough U.S. House representatives have pledged to become co-sponsors (290 were needed) in order to now bring it to the floor for a final vote. They’re hoping the 6888th bill will be passed within the next few weeks in honor of Black History Month.
“My mom is not here to get her medal, but she knows that it’s coming. She would be so proud.”
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