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This Day in History: The Women of SixTripleEight

On this day in 1943, a young woman enlists in the Women’s Army Corps. Twenty-two-year-old Maybelle Rutland would go on to serve in the 6888th Central Postal Battalion during World War II.

The “SixTripleEight,” as the battalion came to be known, was the only all-black, all-female Army unit to serve overseas during the war. Yet when those 855 women boarded the French ocean liner SS Ile de France on February 3, 1945, they had no idea what their mission was to be.

They knew only that they were traveling from the United States to England, and they would receive their mission once they arrived.

They went anyway.

Their commander, Major Charity Adams, met them as they arrived. “They had spent eleven days at sea on a zigzag course dodging German U-boats,” Adams later remembered. “The sight of two officers whom they knew, standing at dockside waiting to greet them, was like a breath of fresh air. Thanks to the seasickness, the salt-water spray, and the limited personal conveniences, the group was a very unhappy looking lot.”

Some even joked that they wouldn’t go home “until a bridge was built over the Atlantic Ocean”!

Once there, the women learned their task: They were taken to warehouses where millions and millions of pieces of mail were sitting, undelivered. Army officers were growing increasingly concerned about that mountain of mail because morale among our soldiers was suffering. Yet they also knew the task would be overwhelming.

“[M]any of the letters and packages were addressed simply to ‘Junior,’ ‘Buster,’ or to soldiers who shared common names such as ‘Robert Smith,’” the U.S. Army website describes. “Also, the hangars themselves were poorly lit, unheated, and cold and damp . . . . The lighting was poor due to the windows being blacked out to prevent light from escaping and alerting enemy aircraft of their location during nighttime air raids.”

Well-intentioned Americans had tried to ship homemade cookies to their loved ones overseas. You can imagine the kind of mess that the food now made—and the enticement that it offered to rodents.

The women of the SixTripleEight had a simple motto as they worked: “No mail, low morale.” The Army had believed that it would take six months to a year to clear the backlog and get mail moving more reliably again, but wouldn’t you know that the SixTripleEight got the task done in three months?

Then they moved on to France and took care of another backlog there, in a similarly efficient fashion.

They developed a system of locator cards to help ensure proper and efficient delivery. At their peak efficiency, SixTripleEight was processing 65,000 pieces of mail per shift. They’d sorted 17 million pieces of mail by the time they were done.

The women of SixTripleEight began to rotate home during the summer of 1945, their mission complete. Some stayed in the military. Others used the GI Bill to go to college. As for Adams, she retired as a Lieutenant Colonel, then the highest-ranking black woman in the Army.

The women’s contributions to the war effort went mostly unnoticed during those years, but that oversight is finally being rectified.

A few months ago, Congress approved legislation awarding a Congressional Gold Medal to the battalion. The Medal follows a 2019 documentary, which chronicles the experiences of the SixTripleEight. Likewise, a monument has been dedicated at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.

“My mother was always enormously proud of the Six Triple Eight,” Adams’s son concludes. “This monument is a statement of the responsibility, determination, and honor, and it is a gift from the recent past addressed to the future.”

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