By Avis Thomas-Lester
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 26, 2009
It was 1944, and they came from small towns and big cities, high school graduates and working professionals who answered their country's call for service at a time when much of the nation barely recognized their citizenship.
Uncle Sam was looking for a few good African American women to join the military in Europe. Black women weren't any more welcome in most branches than black men were until first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, at the urging of African American civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune, began agitating for a role for black women in the war overseas.
The 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, a unit of 885 black Women's Army Corps (WAC) members, was charged with clearing up a huge backlog of mail sent to military personnel overseas. All that undelivered mail was hurting morale, Army officials said.
The job was expected to take six months, but the unit, known as the Six Triple Eight, working round-the-clock in eight-hour shifts, finished the job -- handling 7 million pieces of mail -- in three months. Later, they were sent to France for a similar assignment.
"We served our country proudly, and we did a good job," said Mary Crawford Ragland, 81, of Bladensburg. "When we came back, though, there were no parades, there were no speeches, there was no recognition. They gave us our papers discharging us and sent us on our way."
Yesterday, dozens of military officials, veterans, active-duty military personnel, friends and family gathered at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery to right that wrong.
In a 90-minute ceremony, three members of the unit were honored as heroes who had performed masterfully in the face of adversity, much like the Tuskegee Airmen and Buffalo Soldiers, black servicemen who have since been recognized for their service and sacrifice.
The 6888th arrived in England on Valentine's Day 1945 after a difficult journey across the Atlantic, said Alyce Dixon of the District, at 101 the oldest of the remaining members of the group. During the two-week voyage, submarines menaced the ship carrying the WACs. And as they left the ship that day, a German V-1 rocket, known as a "buzz bomb," exploded, sending the women running for cover, Dixon said.
"It was frightening," she said. "We didn't know what we had gotten ourselves into."
They arrived a short time later at a base in Birmingham, their home for most of the time they spent in England. They found three airplane hangars full of undeliverable mail.
"Some people didn't understand about addressing letters, so they would just write a letter to their son or husband addressed 'To Junior, U.S. Army' or 'To Sam, Army,' " Ragland said. "It was our job to figure out who those soldiers were and get them their mail."
The battalion was commanded by Maj. Charity Adams Earley, who had joined the Army in 1942 and became the first black woman to receive a commission, according to the Army.
At the ceremony yesterday, Retired Brig. Gen. Wilma Vaught, president of the Women in Military Service board of directors, described an incident that almost led to Earley's court-martial.
"A white general came to review her operation, and he said he was sending a white officer to tell them how to do it right," Vaught said. "Her response was, 'Sir, over my dead body, sir!' The general put her up for court-martial but later dropped it, and they became friends. He later apologized."
During the war, the Army's attitude toward black women appears to have been more progressive than the Navy's. The Navy WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) excluded black women for almost the entire conflict, officials said.
Ragland was a 17-year-old high school graduate living in Wilmington, Del., when she responded to an ad in the newspaper asking for black women to join the service. She aspired to be a dancer and join a theater company, but her mother urged her to consider the military.
"She said, 'If I was young again, this is what I would do,' " Ragland said.
Dixon was already a member of the WACs when she signed up for the mail battalion. The Boston native enlisted in 1942 for the medical benefits, hoping to stop the vitiligo that was turning her skin white.
"I thought Army doctors knew everything, so I had all the confidence that they could cure me," she said. "When I finally got to the doctor, I asked him to, please, cure me of the white spots. He told me: 'Relax. In a little while you'll be white like me.' I said, 'Well, can you make me white now, so I can enjoy it as much as you do?' I could not believe he would think that I would want to be white. It was very upsetting to me that he said that to me."
Before going to Europe, the women had to undergo basic training in Georgia. They crawled under logs wearing gas masks and jumped over trenches. Some regretted signing up. "I wanted to go home, but I didn't want to go to jail, so I stayed," Ragland said, laughing.
Overseas, the women were sometimes treated more respectfully than at home. In France, they lived for a time in hotels, with maid service and meals prepared by chefs.
In France, "people were so positive," Ragland said. "They asked, 'Why does your country treat you so badly when black people have contributed so much to the country and the culture?' It was embarrassing having them ask that."
At the program yesterday, Gladys Schuster Carter, 87, of Chesapeake, Va., thanked the young women in the audience. "You are standing on our shoulders, but let me tell you what our pride is: seeing you young women who have succeeded since us," she said.