Through Anna Mae Robertson's hands passed countless letters to American troops, messages of longing and hope that the recipients would survive the European battlefields and return home.
The work began in Birmingham, England, in 1943, when Robertson and the rest of the Women's Army Corps 6888 Central Postal Directory Battalion were assigned to tackle a two-year logjam of mail. Given six months, they finished in three.
Toward the end of the war, their performance earned them a trip to Rouen, France, to get a mountain of mail moving on the continent. Again, they were given six months; again, they were done in three. From there, it was on to Paris, where they were given top-notch treatment in appreciation for their work.
The Six Triple Eight was the only all-female battalion deployed overseas during World War II and the first female African-American battalion in the Army. When Robertson and the rest of the battalion returned home, there were no parades and no medals. But on Wednesday morning, Robertson, 90, will finally receive the medals she should have gotten decades ago.
When the soldiers arrived in Birmingham — after their convoy carrying them across the Atlantic was forced to reroute because of German U-boats — they saw warehouses crammed with mail. Working in an unheated warehouse with windows darkened because of nightly bombings by Nazi squadrons, the women immediately started sorting the mail, and figuring out how to get it to U.S. service members across Europe. Robertson and the other 854 women covered three shifts around the clock seven days a week, wearing all of their warm clothing to ward off the chill.
"We just bagged it up and sorted it out," Robertson said in an interview Tuesday at her Milwaukee home. "We didn't have any heat and we didn't have any lights because they blacked out the windows."
Some envelopes simply said "Junior, U.S. Army," while others were addressed to "Bob Smith" or "John Jones." The unit developed a system of Army post office boxes to sort mail, and devised special locator cards for service members with common last names. Damaged parcels were repackaged. A team of battalion members focused solely on the volume of letters marked "return to sender" because the recipient was killed in action.
Because American military units were segregated during World War II, not only were Six Triple Eight soldiers isolated by gender, but they also were kept apart because of their skin color. They were not allowed to eat in chow halls with other American soldiers, so some members of the Six Triple Eight were cooks. They ran their own dining facility and slept in separate barracks.
Three soldiers in the Six Triple Eight were killed in a traffic accident and buried overseas.
Visited Milwaukee, stayed
At the start of the war, only 10% of the Women's Army Corps at any one time could be African-American. Black female soldiers began calling themselves the "ten percenters."
The military also restricted the number of black female officers with each branch to one full colonel or Navy captain, said Beth Ann Koelsch, curator of the Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project in North Carolina. More than 6,500 African-American women served in the Women's Army Corps throughout World War II. In 1948 America's military was integrated.
A native of Mississippi, Robertson, whose maiden name is Wilson, was living in Arkansas when her mother died. She was 19 and had no way to support herself, so she decided to join the Army. Her only sibling, a brother, was serving in the Navy in the Pacific.
"I felt as though we were relieving a man who could go over and fight. We could do what the men had been doing," said Robertson.
After the war Robertson visited Milwaukee to attend the wedding of a fellow Six Triple Eight soldier, decided to stay here, found a job as a nurse's aide at the VA hospital, married in 1948 and raised eight children.
When the war ended in Germany, the battalion was abruptly sent back to the United States. The Six Triple Eight never had any reunions. When the unit was finally recognized for its service in 2009, only three members could be found to attend a ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery.
One of Robertson's daughters heard about the ceremony and wondered why her mother wasn't recognized. She contacted Rep. Gwen Moore (D-Milwaukee), whose staff tracked down Robertson's military records and handled paperwork for her medals.
"It's inspiring. They went through a lot of ordeals to serve despite the hardships," said Moore. "They weren't allowed to shower or dine with the other battalions. It added an extra burden to cook for themselves and serve their needs, yet they did six months work in three months."
In a short ceremony Wednesday morning at Moore's office in Milwaukee, Robertson will receive the Women's Army Corps Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, European-African-Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, World War II Victory Medal and the Honorable Service Lapel Button WW2. A retired brigadier general will present Robertson with her long-overdue medals.
Robertson remembers wearing dark green olive drab Army uniforms while she was stationed in Europe. For Wednesday's event, she bought a new blue dress to wear with a colorful scarf.
Holding up the dress on a hanger, she smiled and said, "It's not olive drab."