When I was a kid, my hometown held a parade every year on Memorial Day weekend. Like most families, my parents and siblings would watch the parade in the morning and then plant flowers in family plots at the cemetery in the afternoon. A cookout with hot dogs and hamburgers would follow.
The parade was part celebration and part remembrance – in celebration of those who made it home and in solemn remembrance for those who didn’t. We always got there early with our lawn chairs to make sure we had the best spot. I was usually fidgeting. I couldn’t wait to see the soldiers. These veterans were so impressive, stern and tight lipped, arms swinging, never faltering – despite those with gray hair or maybe a limp or empty sleeve. In measured columns and rows they passed by, their rhythm perfect, in cadence and in step with their personal memories of events long past. They followed the flag.
But first, we heard the high school band. Those far away trumpets, heralded the approaching parade. As the American flag proudly waved into view, our older neighbors struggled to their feet, hands on hearts. I can remember hopping up and down beside my Mom, watching my brother in his Army greens march by – ramrod straight, a proud Vietnam Veteran. There were numbers of World War II and Korean War veterans too, all men, still fitting into their uniforms, medals swaying in time to the drumbeat.
Following WWII, with nearly nine million men having served in uniform, every small town had its own heroes. Nearly half a million women served too. But most WWII veterans didn’t come home to a welcoming parade. They were happy just to come home.
Unlike today, whole units didn’t return at the same time from deployment. Units were broken apart, downsized, inactivated, and soldiers came home in dribbles and pairs. Sometimes alone. This was by design. In September 1944, the Army announced a point system would be used to determine who would go home first at the war’s end, a plan to guarantee the process would be orderly. On Victory in Europe Day (VE Day) – May 8, 1945, soldiers suddenly began to pay attention to the point system. The magic number of points to score an early ride home: 85.
Major Charity Adams was the commander of the Six Triple Eight Central Postal Battalion (No Mail, Low Morale), another deployed unit likewise was subject to the point system. The Six Triple Eight was the only African-American Women’s Army Corps (WAC) battalion to serve overseas during the war. This battalion, 855 strong, proved they could accomplish the impossible. Sent to England to clear a massive backlog of over 17 million pieces of mail and parcels for troops and civilian Americans, they accomplished the impossible. Working around the clock, they moved all that mail in just three months. They then tackled two additional mail backlogs, one in Rouen, France and the other in Paris. At the war’s end, the women were in Paris, waiting on orders to go home.
Through December 1945, Charity managed the downsizing of her command and was busy arranging transportation for those lucky troops. One by one, they reached the magical number of 85 points, then packed their duffels and hoisted them over their shoulders, walking out of the unit for the last time. They boarded ships with little to no fanfare, few if any awards, and headed home, wherever that may have been. Each one had earned the European Campaign Medal, the Women’s Army Corps Service Medal, and the World War II Victory Medal, though many didn’t receive these awards until years later. There wasn’t any parade to honor them.
Unfortunately, three of Charity’s soldiers didn’t return home. They had been killed in automobile accident in France and were buried at the American cemetery in Normandy.
At the same time she was shipping out her troops, Charity learned she was being promoted to Lieutenant Colonel and was being offered a new assignment. Charity turned down the opportunity to serve in the Pentagon and was discharged in December 1945. By March 1946, the remainder of the Six Triple Eight was back in the U.S. The battalion was then disbanded and its accomplishments began to fade from the Army’s history books.
The national U.S. World War II Victory parade was held on January 9, 1946, in New York. The four-mile-long parade of victorious WWII soldiers were represented by the 82nd Airborne Division, newly returned home from occupation duty in Berlin. They practiced for months to march together in this major event. At the time, there were other major parades across Europe, in Berlin, Moscow, London. Not many women took part.
The Six Triple Eight never had a parade of their own. After the war the unheralded soldiers went back to civilian life and began to find their own paths forward. But many missed their old friends – the camaraderie, the sense of purpose, the pride. It took more than twenty years but gradually the unit began to hold reunions. Charity attended her first reunion in 1988. The women reveled in each other’s company and their memories of their wartime service.
In 1996 Charity was asked to take part in a Black History Month event honoring World War II veterans at the Pentagon. “It has certainly taken a long time for us to be remembered,” she commented with her typical candor.
They can never be forgotten now. In 2018, the Six Triple Eight finally got their parade. The parade was held during the dedication of a monument to their service, held at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. In 2019, the battalion received a long overdue Army Meritorious Unit Commendation for its professionalism and service. That same year, a bill authorizing the award of The Congressional Gold Medal for the Six Triple Eight Central Postal Battalion was introduced in Congress to honor their service and devotion to duty and their ‘contributions to increase the morale of all United States personnel stationed in the European theater of operations in WWII.’ It was reintroduced in 2021.
Senator Jerry Moran, Kansas was the original Senate Congressional Gold Medal Bill sponsor (S.321). Here is his Tribute to the Women of the Six Triple Eight.
The Six Triple Eight Gold Congressional Medal Bill to honor the WWII 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion passed the Senate on Thursday night. This is the second time that the bill passed. To become law, the House of Representatives has to pass their version of the bill.
As of May 1, 2021, there are only seven remaining living veterans of the Six Triple Eight. Yet this award, (still pending now), is a symbolic parade in honor of each and every one of them and a celebration of their legacy. Let’s salute these trailblazing women this Memorial Day and remember their service and sacrifice.
P.S. If you’re enjoying The Girls Who Stepped Out of Line newsletter, I would love your help spreading the word about it. Please share with friends, family, and colleagues you think would be interested.
Enjoyed this post? Get my newsletter delivered to your inbox so you don’t miss the next one! I send out one mailing a month most months and promise zero spam.