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The only all-Black, all-female second world war battalion will be awarded the congressional gold medal after Joe Biden signed a bipartisan bill on Monday to honor the women’s efforts.
The 6888th central post directory battalion, also known as the “six triple eight” was the only group of African American women to serve overseas during second world war. Created in 1944, it included 824 enlisted Black women and 31 officers from the women’s army corps, the army service forces and the army air forces.
Initially, only white women were admitted to the women’s army corps, which was created by President Franklin D Roosevelt in 1943. However, following a push from the first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, and civil rights leader Dr Mary McLeod Bethune, Black women were eventually admitted.
In Europe, the battalion sorted and routed mail for over 4 million American service members and civilians. In addition to serving as a role model to generations of Black women who joined the military afterwards, it was also credited with solving a growing mail crisis due to a shortage of postal officers.
Before their arrival in England, warehouses in Birmingham were filled with millions of undelivered letters and packages. When the women arrived in February 1945, they worked around the clock to maintain 7m information cards that included serial numbers to distinguish different people with the same last names.
In the midst of rats nibbling on packages filled with cookies and cakes, the women investigated mail with insufficient address details to identify the intended recipient. They also returned mail addressed to service members who had died.
Because the warehouse windows were blacked out to prevent light from showing during nighttime air raids, the women often had to sift through the mail in dimly lit environments, with their units organized into three separate eight-hour shifts. During winters, the women wore long johns and extra layers of clothing beneath their coats in the unheated warehouses.
The battalion eventually created a new mail tracking system and processed 65,000 pieces of mail per shift. Within three months, the women cleared the six-month backlog of 17m pieces of mail.
Despite their efforts, the women faced racist and sexist treatment, including “hostility and rumors impugning their character spread by both white and Black male soldiers who resented the fact that Black women were allowed in the army”, according to the US Army Center of Military History.
At one point, a general criticized the unit commander, Maj Charity Adams, and threatened to give her command to a white officer.
“Over my dead body, sir,” Adams reportedly responded.
Out of the 850 members in the unit, only six are still alive.
“We helped each other. We worked with each other,” retired Maj Fanny Griffin McClendon, who served as a battalion supervisor, told ABC News.
McClendon, who is now 101 years old, was taken by surprise when she learned that her battalion was going to be honored. “It never occurred to me that we would even be considered for a medal of any kind,” she said.
In a statement by Wisconsin representative Gwen Moore, who sponsored the bill after a daughter of 6888th member Anna Mae Robertson contacted her, she praised the battalion’s exploits during the war.
“Facing both racism and sexism in a warzone, these women sorted millions of pieces of mail, closing massive mail backlogs, and ensuring service members received letters from their loved ones. A Congressional Gold Medal is only fitting for these veterans who received little recognition for their service after returning home,” Moore said.
The Nevada senator Jacky Rosen, a member of the Senate armed services committee, introduced the Six Triple Eight Congressional Gold Medal Act with the Kansas senator Jerry Moran and applauded Biden for signing it into law.
“They deserve our nation’s highest honors for their service. There is no better time to give them this long-overdue recognition than during Women’s History Month, and I’m proud to see President Biden sign our bipartisan legislation into law,” Rosen said.
Brenda Partridge-Brown, the daughter of battalion member Willie Bell Irvin, told ABC News that the women were never properly honored.
“It just means the world to me to know that my mother’s service was not in vain,” she said.
The White House has yet to confirm a ceremony date.