African American WACs Served In a Unique Battalion

The 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion was unique in the annals of World War II history. It was the only all-African American, all-female unit to serve overseas. A Women’s Army Corps (WAC) unit, the 6888th kept mail flowing to nearly seven million soldiers in the European Theater of Operations.

The women of the 6888th Battalion survived two anxious brushes with the German military during World War II. First, German U-boats forced the unit’s convoy to reroute during its voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. Then, upon arriving in England a V1 rocket, known as a Buzz Bomb, came roaring into the area.

“Everyone was running,” recalled Mrs. Mary Ragland, a veteran of the unit, about the Buzz Bomb attack in February 1945, where the snow-saturated ground made running difficult. Alyce Dixon remembered, “I was little and I could get down.” No one was hurt in the attack, but the rocket got their attention: “I was always ready to run,” said Ragland. The U-boats had a similar effect: “Darn tootin’ I was scared!” admitted Ragland. The worst part was being in the middle of a vast ocean: “You can’t see land anywhere.”


During World War II African-American women from all over the United States joined the Army. “After the attack on Pearl Harbor, the whole country got involved,” remembered Gladys Shuster Carter, who joined up in Richmond, Virginia. Ragland, who was raised in Wilmington, Delaware, enlisted right out of high school at age 17. She decided to join after seeing a recruiting advertisement in the newspaper that offered African American women the chance to go overseas. Alyce Dixon joined the Army before the country joined the fight.

Already relegated to a separate unit because of their gender, the women were further segregated because of the color of their skin. But they were ready to work for their country, and their abilities were needed.

Arriving in Birmingham, England, the women discovered warehouses crammed from floor to ceiling with mail and packages. “The mail hadn’t moved in a year or two,” recalled Ragland. The women went to work, organizing a system of mail flow that would break the bottleneck.

Conditions were less than ideal. “We were working in big warehouses and the windows were painted black,” said Ragland. The women pitched mail in the damp, poorly-lit buildings without heat. “I wore as many clothes as I could,” recalled Carter about battling the cold.

The women developed a system of Army Post Office boxes to pitch mail. For Soldiers with common surnames, like “Smith” or “Jackson,” the clerks used special locator cards that contained Soldiers’ names and unit numbers to ensure proper delivery. They repackaged damaged goods and sent them along. To deal with the volume of mail, the women worked seven days a week in eight-hour rotating shifts, with two groups pitching mail, while the third rested.

The women got to know the locals. “They treated us better than we were back home,” said Ragland. Carter remembered the smell of lilacs planted in the local yards. “Local women would bring us flowers, and ever since then I love the smell of lilacs.”

But some of their worst treatment came at the hands of their fellow countrymen. When an American general visited the unit, MAJ Charity Adams, the 6888th’s commander, ordered her two on-duty groups to fall out for inspection. The general was displeased that the whole unit was not present and threatened Adams that he would replace her with a white lieutenant. “Over my dead body,” Adams snapped. The women were behind her. “If they court-martialed her, they would have to court-martial 800 women,” said Carter. Fortunately, the general realized his mistake and apologized to Adams.

It was not the only time the WACs faced prejudice. When the Red Cross opened a club exclusively for black women, Adams told the leaders, “My ladies will not come here.” She then addressed her unit, telling the women, “I cannot order you not to go there, but I hope that none of you do.” The 6888th closed ranks behind its commander. None of the women attended the club.

Despite the conditions, the unrelenting schedule and slights about ethnicity and gender, the women completed their mission ahead of schedule. They were given six months to break the logjam; they did it in three. Because of their success, at the end of the war the unit was sent to Rouen, France, to get the mail moving on the continent.

Upon their arrival they were greeted by African-American Soldiers. “They were real gentlemen and they helped us unload,” said Ragland. The men offered to make the women’s beds, said Carter. “But they short-sheeted our beds!” She recalled with a laugh. The men also left cards with their names and units on the women’s pillows. The ladies then settled in and got to work, moving more mountains of mail. Again, they were given six months to complete the task. Again, they did it in three. Their next assignment took them to the city of lights—to Paris.

“We received tremendous applause from the French people,” Ragland recalled about the Battalion’s march through the city. The enlisted women were housed in a luxurious hotel, where they received first-class treatment. French cooks prepared their meals and maids cleaned their rooms. “I felt special,” recalled Dixon, “They really catered to us.” Ragland had never experienced such attention, “but we deserved it.”

With the war in Europe over, the Battalion transferred stateside in an abrupt process. “They sent us straight to Fort Dix and then home.” There was no parade or thank you from the country. Despite the quick discharge, Ragland looked back fondly at her service to her country. “We represented our country, our organization and ourselves. We were so proud.”

Sixty-four years later, Freedom Team Salute (FTS) thanked three surviving members of the 6888th Battalion—Alyce Dixon, Mary Ragland and Gladys Shuster—at Arlington National Cemetery. “You ladies looked sharp then and you look sharp now!” COL David Griffith, the director of FTS, told the women after watching a film on the unit. After the event, Ms. Dixon told the admiring crowd, “Thank God I lived to be one-hundred-and-one so I could see this beautiful ceremony.”

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