These Black female soldiers brought order to chaos and delivered a blow against inequality. PHOTO 12/UNIVERSAL IMAGES GROUP EDITORIAL/UNIVERSAL IMAGES GROUP VIA GETTY
(CNN) — Only four women rest under the long rows of white marble headstones at the Normandy American Cemetery in Colleville-sur-Mer, France, where nearly 9,400 other Americans who made the ultimate sacrifice for their country are buried. Three of the women are African American.
Pfc. Mary J. Barlow, Pfc. Mary H. Bankston and Sgt. Dolores M. Browne endured stifling segregation while serving their country, yet with their comrades they maintained a lifeline between American troops and their families back home.
The women were members of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, known as the Six Triple Eight, the only all-Black Women’s Army Corps unit to serve in Europe during World War II.
The battalion — which served in England and France — had a tough assignment: clear up an overwhelming backlog of letters and care packages that had been building up for years. Mail was considered a lifeline and a morale booster — a reminder of home and the country those troops were fighting for, and the Army wanted the job done fast.
The Six Triple Eight often worked in cold, dark conditions for months, but completed their mission even earlier than expected. But when they came home, the unit of African American women was treated to little or no fanfare.
“I’m sure that you have seen, as many people have seen, how service people were heralded,” said former WAC Lena King, 97, one of 11 known survivors out of the 855-member battalion. “But our dismissal was quiet and unpronounced. We simply came home.”
More than 6,500 African American women served during World War II. Many enlisted out of a patriotic sense of duty for a country that kept them segregated.
While the Six Triple Eight has received accolades in recent years — including the Army’s Meritorious Unit Commendation in 2019 — supporters are behind bills calling for the battalion to receive the Congressional Gold Medal for their extraordinary service, joining the likes of the Tuskegee Airmen and Montford Point Marines.
“I believe that people are aware that Black women served during World War II,” said retired Army Col. Edna Cummings, who advocates for the women. “But I do not believe they know the full scope of their service.”
This effort to further recognize what Black women endured and accomplished during World War II comes as people across the country are, once again, in a reckoning over race.
King said she believes the service of African American women and men in WWII should have translated into a broader impact on society.
“The thing is you think that all of that is going to make things better for racial equality and so forth, but it has no effect really, she said. “It’s painful to see that we still haven’t really brought it together.
A call for women to join up
In February 1945, the 6888th — commanded by Maj. Charity Adams (later Adams Earley), was sent to England, where a shortage of personnel was wreaking havoc with the mail system.