There is much Anita Fletcher can tell you about her mother, Audrey Whitney.
How Whitney used to have her youngest sister over to her home, where they’d drink Budweiser and eat peanuts, gossiping and laughing the hours away. How Whitney, a child during the Great Depression, would always accept extra furniture and household items, which she would store in the garage and give away if anyone needed them. How she “wouldn’t take any mess from you” — waking up her three kids early on Saturdays to clean, regardless of how late they were up the night before.
Fletcher knew her mom had served in the military when she was younger. But it wasn’t until 2016, the final year of her mother’s life, that Fletcher, a retired sleep technologist in Portsmouth, Va., learned the extent of her mother’s service. She had been part of a historic World War II unit, comprising all Black women — the first such group in the Women’s Army Corps to be deployed overseas.
The 855 Black women of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion (commonly referred to as “the Six Triple Eight”) cleared a massive backlog in mail, helping to deliver more than 17 million pieces of mail in the final months of the war.
This year, the Senate passed a bill that would give the 6888th a Congressional Gold Medal — an honor their advocates have been fighting for since 2019.
While some members of the unit have received individual ribbons, the unit as a whole wasn’t recognized until 2019, when the Army approved its Meritorious Unit Commendation — a push led by Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), who also introduced the Senate bill to award the 6888th the Congressional Gold Medal. After passing the Senate with no objections, the bill is currently in the House, where two-thirds of the members need to approve it.
Time is running out to give the women the honor in person. Only seven women who are known to have served in the unit are alive. And advocates are still trying to locate all the women who served in the 6888th.
Whitney is among the latest additions to the list. After Fletcher saw stories of the 6888th bubble up again, she was reminded of her mom’s stories.
As Whitney’s Alzheimer’s disease advanced, she lived with Fletcher, where the two would spend long evenings talking about her overseas deployment. Sometimes, Whitney would mix her daughter up with women she served with, according to Fletcher. Other times, when Whitney would lash out — demanding that she be taken home, for instance, and swinging her cane at Fletcher when she refused — her daughter would put on a video of the 6888th marching in formation.
The black and white video never failed to settle her mother down.
“She would always say, ‘Do you see me?’ ” Fletcher said. She couldn’t spot her mom in the video but would reassure her, “I know you were there.”
“She would say, ‘I know. And I loved it. I just loved it.’ ”
Fletcher said her mom was around 19 at the time of her deployment, her sense of adventure and optimism documented in the photos she has from that period. One photograph shows Whitney in the back of a food line: “The good old days,” Whitney wrote on the back, “in the chow line where you would always find me.”
Now, Fletcher hopes her mom will be recognized alongside the rest of her unit.
“That would just bring tears to my eyes,” Fletcher said.
Fletcher’s mom is among the latest women to be reported as part of the record-breaking unit, according to Carlton Philpot, a retired Navy commander and chairman of the Buffalo Soldier Educational and Historical Committee.
Philpot championed the only monument honoring the 6888th, dedicated in November 2018 in Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and has diligently researched, collected and shared their stories over the years. Along with Dominic Johnson, the committee’s vice president and chief researcher, they have put together a 20-page document full of “facts and interesting tidbits” about the battalion that he offers to journalists, complete with citations and common mistakes to avoid.
While the 6888th was a historic first, its members enduring racist mistreatment and segregation during their training and their service, Philpot said he is most moved by their accomplishments.
The unit, which was not attached to any male unit, was formed specifically to help clear a massive two-to-three-year backlog for Allied troops on the European front, Philpot said.
Within three months of arriving in Birmingham, England, in February 1945, the 6888th sorted at least 17 million pieces of mail, working around-the-clock shifts, seven days a week. The women created their own system of locator cards to help facilitate mail delivery; sometimes, they only had a nickname or a first name to work from.
The unit’s motto was “no mail, low morale.”
Maj. Fannie Griffin McClendon said she’s most proud of the work the unit did in Birmingham, cleaning up “that mess” of a mail system. But her favorite part of serving, she said, was being able to visit the places she had studied in history class. She would spend 26 years in the armed forces, eventually joining the Air Force, where she met her husband.
McClendon, now 100, said it was “kind of crazy” how much attention she’s received from journalists in the last several weeks, as news of the Congressional Gold Medal effort recirculates. Receiving the recognition, as the Tuskegee Airmen did, would be “quite an honor,” she said.
The battalion’s achievement “broke all records for redirecting mail,” wrote Maj. Charity Adams Earley, the woman who led the unit, in her autobiography, “One Woman’s Army.” The claim was cited from a Women’s Army Corps administrator.
Elizabeth Helm-Frazier, a retired Army sergeant who now works for the Department of Veterans Affairs, noted that mail is essential for anyone who is deployed.
“The are three things most important to military people … getting paid, food and shelter, and mail,” she said.
“Mail is what kept you connected to home, no matter where you were in the world,” Helm-Frazier said. “Bad or good news — it kept you connected.”
The women of the 6888th were instrumental in keeping those connections alive at a pivotal time, Helm-Frazier pointed out: keeping lovers united; delivering news of births and deaths; reminding troops that someone thought about them, missed them, wanted them home.
Without that connection, a service member can become “lost,” said Helm-Frazier, who recalled being inspired by a photo of the 6888th she saw in the 1980s when she was in the Army.
Back then, no one could tell her who was in the unit or what they did. She has since befriended several members of the battalion, she said.
For many women in the battalion, their time in the service remains a point of pride — and a crucial turning point in their lives.
Romay C.J. Davis, another veteran of the 6888th, said her unit deserves wider recognition.
“I think we helped a lot. In fact, I know we did,” the 101-year-old said. “We did what we had to do, and we were good at what we did.”
Davis believes the members of the 6888th should have been honored at the end of their service. “Being the unit it was” — a group of Black women — “I guess [the government] decided not to do so,” Davis continued.
Davis was 26 at the time of her deployment — she recalls her service as an “amazing, amazing period” in her life. She worked as a chauffeur, driving both Jeeps and 2½-ton trucks. Davis gave each one of her vehicles names.
“My truck was named Cassandra, because she was big and beautiful,” Davis said. There were the horrors of war, of course — over the course of her time in Europe, she remembered driving past bodies on the sides of the roads.
But her most vivid memory of her deployment was the boat ride over from New York to England. Davis described herself as a “country girl,” prone to motion sickness while driving. When she enlisted, her five brothers had already been deployed.
Crossing the ocean, their ship w targeted by German U-boats. Davis remembers the turmoil of that moment. “We thought the ship was going to sink,” she said.g waves that were as “big as mountains.”
Crossing the ocean, their ship was targeted by German U-boats. Davis remembers the turmoil of that moment. “We thought the ship was going to sink,” she said.
She surprised herself by keeping cool and collected, thinking quickly to help her unit. She learned that when trouble came, she got “stronger.”
The crossing changed how she viewed herself. It remains the moment Davis is proudest of — “the fact that I was able to go, that they wanted women to do something … that I was brave enough to leave home.”