FORT LEAVENWORTH, Kan. — More than 75 years after World War II, a group of African American female soldiers in the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion are being honored as heroes.
They faced racial and gender discrimination while completing a record-setting pace to get mail to soldiers on the battlefield. A monument at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, now details their heroic efforts, and thousands of Black women soldiers and veterans are expressing their appreciation to the battalion known as the Six-Triple Eight.
During WWII, U.S. soldiers didn't have cellphones or laptops. Their only communication from home was through the mail. However, there was a tremendous backlog and the mail wasn't reaching American soldiers in battle, contributing to low morale.
The U.S. Army deployed the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion to the European theatre of WWII to sort through the backlog of millions of letters and packages so the mail could be delivered to the troops.
At 18 years old, Cpl. Lena Derriecott King was assigned to the Six-Triple Eight Battalion when it was deployed to Europe.
Today, she's 98 years old — and she still remembers it well.
"We were stationed in Birmingham, England, and of course our mission was to clear up mail that had been dormant for two years," King said.
She also remembers the stark contrast of how the people of Birmingham treated members of the Six-Triple Eight versus some of the White men from her own country in the same Army.
"I was called the N-word by a White soldier I encountered one day when we were off-duty visiting the town," King said. "He was astonished to see us (Black women in the Army stationed in Europe) and said, 'what are you doing here?' and called me the N-word."
In the face of racial hatred, the Six-Triple Eight remained focused on its mission.
"We had three shifts a day, seven days a week, and we handled about 650,000 pieces of mail per shift," King said.
The Army gave them only six months to sort through the massive backlog of mail, but they set a record, sorting 17.5 million pieces of mail in half that time — just three months. Their tremendous success meant that U.S. troops on the battlefield were once again receiving their mail.
"We didn't take up arms, but we kept up the morale of those who did," King said.
At Fort Leavenworth, the monument honoring the Six-Triple Eight was dedicated in 2018. King traveled from Nevada to attend the ceremony.
"All of us feel the gratitude of just having people know that we existed and that we might be an example of what can be done under certain circumstances," King said.
The bravery and success of the Six-Triple Eight during WWII still is influencing other Black women in the U.S. military even today.
Chief Morcie Whitley, a veteran with the Air National Guard, said the Six-Triple Eight paved the way for her success in the military.
Whitley was the first African American female to achieve the rank of sergeant at Rosecrans Air National Guard Base in St. Joseph, Missouri. She also was deployed to Operation Desert Storm, Operation Desert Shield, and Operation Enduring Freedom.
Whitley feels a kindred spirit with the Six-Triple Eight.
"And I'm glad that I have people like them to stand on their shoulders and I hope that someday people will say Chief Whitley inspired me," she said.
Like the Black women in the Six-Triple Eight, 22-year-old Army National Guard Specialist Jameria Stevenson, also a Black woman in the military, understands the importance of serving her country.
"I do feel pride whenever I'm able to put my uniform on and help other people," Stevenson said.
Stevenson joined the military to get help paying for college. She majored in theater at the University of Missouri-Kansas City with dreams of becoming an actor. Stories about the Six-Triple Eight overcoming the challenges of racism and the hardships of war inspire her.
"They mean a lot to me. They made the sacrifices," Stevenson said. "They did the hard part and I'm grateful that they were strong enough to even do that."
Three-quarters of a century after WWII, the Six-Triple Eight finally is being recognized and honored. Two years ago, the U.S. Army approved the Meritorious Unit Commendation Award for the Six-Triple Eight.
There are also two bills in Congress right now that, if approved, would honor the 6888th Battalion with the Congressional Gold Medal.
This story was first published by Cynthia Newsome at KSHB in Kansas City, Missouri.