Paving the way: The 6888th all-female, all-black unit inspires others
By NIKKI WENTLING | Stars and Stripes | Published: October 14, 2019
WASHINGTON – For over an hour Monday, dozens of female soldiers and veterans at the Association of the United States Army annual meeting in Washington took turns shaking the hand of Indiana Hunt-Martin, a 97-year-old World War II veteran whom many of them credited for “paving the way” for their service.
Hunt-Martin is one of seven living veterans from the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, the only all-black, all-female unit to serve in Europe during the war. Known as the Six Triple Eight, the battalion of 855 women managed a major backlog of mail from Americans to their loved ones overseas.
The women were “unheralded and unnoticed” when they returned home, said Anne Macdonald, a retired brigadier general and president of the Army Women’s Foundation.
Recently, the unit has garnered some attention. A monument honoring the battalion was established last year at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., and there’s now an effort underway to award the women the Congressional Gold Medal.
“It took them 70 years to recognize we had done a good job,” Hunt-Martin told the crowd Monday, prompting laughter and applause.
The audience watched a screening of a documentary about the unit, “The Six Triple Eight: No Mail, Low Morale,” which premiered earlier this year. It details the battalion’s mission, as well as the sexism and racism they endured while serving.
The 6888th left the United States in February 1945 and returned the next year. They worked in Birmingham, England, and Roeun, France, where they sorted and sent packages. To start, there were multiple hangars full of mail, some of it more than two years old and addressed only with soldiers’ first names.
The battalion worked all day, every day, in three shifts. They finished the job in Birmingham in three months – half of the time they were given for the mission.
“It was kind of rough for us for awhile,” Hunt-Martin said. “The mail was piled… you couldn’t imagine how high up it had gotten.”
Hunt-Martin graduated high school in Niagara Falls, N.Y. During the 1940s, there wasn’t much opportunity there for a black woman, she said.
“The only jobs you were offered were either day work, cleaning bathrooms, stuff like that,” Hunt-Martin said. “Nothing like clerk work or office work. That was not offered to us at all.”
When the war started, Hunt-Martin read about African Americans joining the military and decided to enlist. She was assigned to the Six Triple Eight, which was under the command of Lt. Col. Charity Adams Earley, the first black woman to be an officer in the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps.
At one point, Earley, who died in 2002, contended with a general who wanted to send a white officer to take over the battalion.
“The longer the Six Triple Eight was on the job, the more we appreciated the value of our work,” Earley said during a televised ceremony in 1995. “How mail… would make the loneliness, the fear, the death of friends, all of this, easier to bear. There was no black, no white, no rank – just an understanding of our mantra: ‘No mail, low morale.’”
When the unit completed its mission and came home, there was no fanfare, Hunt-Martin said. She quickly found a clerical job with the Department of Labor in New York City, and then transferred to a Labor Department office in Niagara Falls.
Back in the town she was raised, Hunt-Martin again faced racism and broke barriers. Being the only black employee, she was assigned to the back of the office.
“They were surprised when I got there; they didn’t have black office workers in Niagara Falls at that time,” she said. “They didn’t know what to do with me. They stuck me there in the back, filing stuff.”
After “quite a few years,” the office got a new manager, who questioned why Hunt-Martin wasn’t working at the front counter.
“He soon put me up front, finally working the desk with the white girls,” Hunt-Martin recalled. “That was something unusual at that time.”
Macdonald, whose organization honors and advocates for current and former Army women, said the Six Triple Eight was only recently recognized at the national level. In 2016, the unit was inducted into the U.S. Army Women’s Hall of Fame. Last year, the battalion was given the Meritorious Unit Award, and the living members attended the unveiling of The 6888th Monument at Fort Leavenworth.
Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., introduced legislation in February to award the women the Congressional Gold Medal. Rep. Gwen Moore, D-Wis., introduced a companion bill in the House. Both bills were referred to committees, but lawmakers have not yet taken action on them.
Hunt-Martin said she never expected it.
“To tell you the truth, I never thought of anything like this before,” she said Monday, in between taking photos with other female veterans and servicemembers. “All of a sudden, they discovered us or something.”
Sgt. 1st Class Natasha Huertas waited behind several other women for the chance to speak with Hunt-Martin. When she got to her, Huertas put her hand on the older woman’s shoulder and thanked her.
“Thank you for paving the way for women of color in the military,” Huertas said. “Thank you for what you did for us.”
Indiana Hunt-Martin, 97, is interviewed Monday, Oct. 14, 2019, at the Association of the United States Army annual meeting in Washington. Hunt-Martin is one of seven living members of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, the only all-black, all-female unit to serve in Europe during World War II.
NIKKI WENTLING/STARS AND STRIPES