By the University at Buffalo
Brenda Moore, Ph.D., a University at Buffalo associate professor of sociology, wrote a letter to Oprah Winfrey in 1996 to share news with the talk show host about the publication of her book, “To Serve My Country, to Serve My Race: The Story of the Only African American WACS Stationed Overseas During World War II.”
She never received a response.
The letter likely never made it past a production assistant or might have otherwise been lost amidst the overwhelming volume of mail addressed to Winfrey in the early digital years of the mid- to late-1990s, when email was still a novel curiosity.
Moore recalled that story shortly after learning that Oprah Winfrey would be part of a cast, headed by Kerry Washington, to star in the forthcoming Netflix film “Six Triple Eight.”
Written and directed by Tyler Perry, “Six Triple Eight” dramatizes the contributions of those who served in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, the subject of Moore’s book. The Army charged the battalion with sorting millions of pieces of backlogged mail intended for the roughly 7 million U.S. service members and civilian personnel stationed in Europe toward the war’s end.
An Illuminating Oral History
Her book is an illuminating oral history, filled with compelling stories gathered through multiple in-depth interviews with 51 of the then-surviving members of the groundbreaking military unit. The study also draws heavily on archival documents on African Americans and women who served in the military during World War II.
“Until World War II, African American women were virtually excluded from military service,” said Moore, an expert in race and ethnic relations and military sociology. “Those who did serve joined the Army because the other branches categorically refused to admit them.”
Moore, however, noted members of the 6888th were not the only African American women to serve overseas during WWII.
“Black nurses had served in Australia and Africa before the 6888th was established, but the Army nurse corps was a separate organization from the Women’s Army Corps, known as WACs,” she said.
“I found in my research that the 6888th was more than eight times as large as the largest unit of African American nurses to be deployed overseas, and were more representative of Black women in the larger society. They came from all walks of life, entered the military from different regions of the country, had different educational backgrounds; some were well-educated professionals while others were less well-educated and unskilled.”
The 6888th performed critical work, according to Moore.
“The mail received by anyone connected to the war effort, particularly for those deployed overseas, whether letters or care packages from home, was the only link they had to familiarity, friends and family,” she said. “Its importance cannot be overstated.
Perry called Moore before starting his project and the two discussed the 855 women of the 6888th, who last year received the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions.
“Tyler Perry said that he was working on the 6888th story to honor these fascinating women, and that he wanted to have the project completed relatively soon, while some of them are still alive. He also said that he had ordered a copy of my book and was excited to read it,” Moore said.
Battalion’s Achievements Were Largely Unknown
When Moore started research on her book, little had been written about women in the U.S. military, and the achievements of the 6888th were largely unknown. She started by examining official documents at the National Archives. From there, she was able to locate the names of some of the women who served with the battalion, and discovered contact information by searching leads.
Afterward, Moore developed a questionnaire for the group’s members before personally conducting her interviews. As the study progressed, members of the 6888th whom Moore found helped her identify additional members.
“Although members of the 6888th Battalion were diverse in terms of religion, education and geographic background, the experience of encountered racism was their common thread,” Moore said. “They were discriminated against, and placed in a segregated unit, segregated by race and by gender. Racism and sexism were defining characteristics of life for African American women in uniform.
“Because of this treatment, they were resolved to prove that they were as good if not better than white WACs. They knew the eyes of the world were upon them, and welcomed the opportunity to publicly blaze a trail for other African American women.”
They often provided for themselves, according to Moore, relying on skills the members had developed prior to their military service. When three members were killed in a traffic accident, fellow members with mortuary experience prepared their bodies for burial.
“This idea of the 6888th as a self-contained unit, always providing for themselves, captivated me,” Moore said. “They were dissimilar in many ways, but pulled together as a cohesive unit.”
Unaware of Their Assignment
Members of the 6888th left the U.S. aboard a ship bound for Europe, unaware of their assignment. They docked in England in February 1945, following a jagged course across the Atlantic to avoid detection by German U-boats. Under the command of Maj. Charity Adams, who in 1942 became the first African American woman in the Army commissioned as an officer, they arrived at four rat-infested postal directory warehouses filled with unsorted mail.
“All of the accumulated mail had to be redirected, first from warehouses in England and later in France,” Moore said. “Their motto was ‘No mail, low morale,’ which was ironic since morale was sometimes low within the 6888th because of their dire conditions. They had no heat, poor lighting because of blackout conditions, around-the-clock shifts seven days a week, and were given only six months to accomplish this task – which they did in half that time.”
On the other hand, each of the women in the study spoke of how well they were treated by the English and the French. In Moore’s analysis, “the congeniality toward members of the battalion expressed by the host countries often provided a safety valve for the stress of the working and living conditions.”
Moore said she is pleased her book has served as a major resource in the petitioning for the Meritorious Unit Commendation and the Congressional Gold Medal for the 6888th. Both efforts were successful, and President Joe Biden signed the medal on March 14, 2022. She is also delighted that it can serve as a blueprint for Perry’s film.
“I’m proud of the research I did for this book, and very pleased that the story of these amazing women is now finally going to reach a broad national and international audience,” she said.