FORT LEE, Va. — Thanks to training, unit functionality and modern technology, mail operations have come a long way since the final months of World War II, when the Army’s only all-women unit to serve overseas accomplished a feat many thought all but impossible.
Upon their early 1945 arrival to Europe, Soldiers of the predominately Black 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion inherited a mail system in severe disarray — a fact made clear by more than 2 million backlogged letters, boxes and parcels stacked to the rafters in makeshift warehouses, far from their intended U.S. military recipients on the front lines.
Members of the Six Triple Eight, as it was known, quickly became problem solvers. How could a fledgling mail operations unit rapidly develop the know-how and ability to move the mountains of backlogged mail – all while maintaining an unending flow of new mail? Further, how could they meet a six-month deadline to do it all, given their status as a self-contained unit that would need to overcome a host of logistical challenges and obstructive race and gender discrimination?
While the answers to those questions are retrospective and may lack context relative to time and place, Col. La’Tonya N. Jordan, chief of operations for the U.S. Army Combined Arms Support Command headquartered here, said the Six Triple Eight earned its place in history, however their mission is examined.
“Considering the early rejection and lack of support the battalion faced from the military and the unsurmountable task of backlogged mail,” she said, “the 6888th battalion performed superbly and was a living testament to the notion that circumstances do not have to define success.”
In the dark without training
A major at the time, Charity Adams commanded the Six Triple Eight and was ultimately responsible for delivering the mail and keeping the unit above the threatening undercurrents of race and gender in a segregated Army. Her credentials were fitting: a Wilberforce College graduate, the first Black woman to earn a Women’s Army Corps commission and a proven leader.
The first few weeks leading to Adams’ official tenure as commander were notable. Even as she flew over the Atlantic in January 1945, she had no idea what the mission entailed or where she would be stationed, as she recorded in her memoir, “One Woman’s Army, A Black Officer Remembers the WAC.”
Adams’ job duties and responsibilities were revealed only a few days after she arrived in London with her executive officer. Her troops arrived a few weeks later. Like their commander, the brand-new basic training graduates stepped ashore without knowing anything about their mission.
The Six Triple Eight’s experience of being kept in the dark before arriving in theater stands in marked contrast to how units deploy today. During operations over the past two decades in Southwest Asia, for example, it was both common and critical for units to send advance parties to mission locations as a faciliatory measure. The small groups of logisticians and others helped lay the groundwork for deliveries of supplies, equipment and material, generally preparing areas of operation that sustain the main body of troops.
Also, many incoming logistical units were privy to mission specifics — mostly based on data compiled by predecessors — far in advance of their movement. This allowed for more effective training at home stations tailored to conditions on the ground.
Adams and her troops did not have the benefit of knowing mission details beforehand and did not have access to the support and services CASCOM provides today — things now taken for granted, such as logistical training, knowledge databases and other sustainment functions.
Moreover, Adams’ battalion lacked resources and knowledge common even to the postal units of that time. In fact, the Six Triple Eight, as an urgent response to a critical requirement, began its mission as a “postal” unit in name only. With absolutely no postal training, the women of the unit were assigned a massive mission with a short deadline — one in which others had already failed.
The self-contained aspect of the Six Triple Eight’s organizational structure made its mission even more difficult.
“The unit didn’t have a higher headquarters to coordinate its logistical needs,” Jordan said, “but I think, internally, its leaders ensured they had the supplies, equipment and materials they needed to make things happen.”
In other words, the unit’s assigned logisticians built informal supply networks to get what they “needed locally through the acquisition of goods and services from nearby military units or commercial sources,” Jordan said.
The need for housing, food and other logistical support was only one of many issues facing the unit. The most pressing was moving the mail.
'No Mail, Low Morale'
Six Triple Eight Soldiers were literally working against the clock. Some of the backlogged mail was more than a year old. Furthermore, address cards used to identify military members and others in the European Theater of Operations proved inadequate to either verify addressees or keep up with the rapid pace of unit movements, according to Adams’ memoir.
Among the problems the unit encountered were Soldiers with identical or similar names, making it difficult to direct mail to the right persons, Adams recalled.
“With over seven million persons in the files, there were thousands of name duplications,” she wrote. “At one point we knew we had more than 7,500 Robert Smiths. Had it not been for serial numbers, we would never have been able to distinguish one from the other. … This same problem applied to thousands of other given names.”
To fulfill obligations of serving nearly 7 million people in theater, the Six Triple Eight implemented a 24-hours-a-day, seven-days-a-week, three-shift schedule. It was warranted given the fact it was confronted with letters and packages filling six airport hangars alone in Birmingham and more coming in daily.
Mindful of their motto — "No Mail, Low Morale" — the women of the Six Triple Eight beat their deadline by three months.
In the spotlight
On paper, it was a mountainous feat, but more so on the ground, said Command Sgt. Maj. Tamika L. DeVeaux, command sergeant major of CASCOM’s Adjutant General School at Fort Jackson, S.C., where military members receive postal training. It required strong leadership, plenty of motivated Soldiers and dashes of resolve, she added.
“Training any group of new recruits that size to do any mission is a challenge itself,” said the Soldier who, like Adams, was reared in the Columbia, S.C., area. “As a former drill sergeant, I can appreciate the discipline, focus and sense of duty required to meet this mission. …having a fully functioning postal operation took vision and critical thinking.
“I also think motivating the Soldiers took someone who could explain the purpose and intent of the mission and how important morale was to the well-being of Soldiers who were at war and away from home.”
When the Six Triple Eight was moved to France — Rouen and later Paris — it was confronted with similar mountains to scale. The unit again showed it was more than capable of handling the job, eclipsing another six-month deadline by half. Overall, it moved roughly 200,000 pieces of mail daily at peak efficiency and 17 million pieces total, according to the Army History Museum.
If mail was the mission, skin color was the bane threatening it. Adams, cast into the national spotlight as a beacon of minority hope, was under no illusion about the mission and its accompanying scrutiny. This was not just a unit comprised mostly of African Americans — who were denied full responsibilities as military members — but Black women, who were serving in significant numbers for the first time in history. It could not fail, and Adams was the right person to steer the operation to victory, contended retired Master Sgt. Elizabeth Helm-Frazier.
“She displayed all the leadership traits during a time that women did not have that opportunity to,” said the Soldier who supported efforts for the 6888th memorial at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. “She was loyal and devoted — not just to her subordinates — but to the military, to her country at a time when her country was not really devoted to her …. She also was respected. She had to earn it as a woman, then as a Black woman and then as a Black woman who was an officer.”
'Not over my dead body'
Of all the indignities suffered as a Black officer, perhaps Adams’ encounter with a white general is best known. He threatened to replace her with a white lieutenant after not having her troops ready to march for a parade. Adams responded with a “Not over my dead body,” in defiance of his order. He threatened a court martial on charges of insubordination, but lost his appetite for it after Adams and other female officers began pursuing a court martial against him for failure to comply with a headquarters directive to not draw attention to racial segregation.
There also were other issues involving race, but Adams moved proactively to resolve them, always keeping the mission and her troops in mind. For her efforts, she was promoted in December 1945 to lieutenant colonel, becoming the highest-ranked Black woman at the time. She was 27 years old. Adams returned to civilian life in 1946.
In retrospect, it is difficult to fathom the logistical complexities of a mission as large as the Six Triple Eight’s in Europe, and all the factors that made it necessary in the first place have been alleviated through time and experience, Jordan said.
“Things are done more efficiently,” she said. “We would’ve known what we needed going in to get the mission accomplished. We would’ve had plans and preparations even before putting people on the ground. We would’ve had an advance party to see what you were dealing with, ensuring we were applying the right number of resources and people to accomplish the mission.”
All considered, Jordan said no matter the caliber of training, resources available or accumulated knowledge applied to various mission aspects, leadership is required to give them meaning and value, and Adams was adept at doing so.
Furthermore, added Jordan, she understood the power of conveyance, getting troops to comprehend and contribute to the mission.
“The one key thing that was important then is important today,” said Jordan. “That is communication. … it was all about troop morale and getting mail delivered, but more importantly, it was about getting troops to understand the value of what they were doing. Buy-in, to me, is what helped drive the success of that operation.”
Worthy of honor
Those responsible for “that operation” — the women of the Six Triple Eight — were memorialized with a bronze and granite monument at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. in 2018. They also were recognized with Congressional Gold Medals in 2022.
On April 27, Adams joins retired Lt. Gen. Arthur J. Gregg as one of the new namesakes for Fort Lee when it is redesignated as Fort Gregg-Adams. The change was directed by Congress in the 2021 National Defense Authorization Act, which required modifying or removing the names of military assets – including bases – that commemorate the Confederacy or those who voluntarily served under it.
Adams became a wife and mother of two, taking the married surname Earley following the war and her time in uniform. She spent the remainder of her life serving humanity.
Adams died in 2002.
NOTE: This story was updated April 7, 2023, to correct the year the Six Triple Eight was awarded Congressional Gold Medals.