When Romay Johnson Davis was in her 20s, she decided to do something millions of young men across the country were doing: enlist in World War II. All five of her brothers had already joined up. “They were being pulled away one by one, and I had no playmates,” Davis recalls. Most young women were staying in the United States and helping out on the home front. Even the iconic Rosie the Riveter was urging women to work in factories, not ship out overseas. But Davis’ parents supported their only daughter’s decision. “My father was skeptical sometimes about my going off. But Mama said, ‘Child, see the world while you can.’”

An elderly Black woman holds a portrait of herself while in uniform during world war two
Davis says her service overseas helped define her. “Home is very good,” she says. “But a lot of good is awakened in you when you are challenged.” Michael A. McCoy

That’s how Davis found herself on the Île de France in February 1945, en route to Glasgow, Scotland. Among the passengers on board were more than 800 recruits from her unit—women mostly in their late teens and 20s, and, in the segregated Army of the era, all of them Black. They would be doing something crucial to the war effort: clearing a massive backlog of undelivered mail. For two years or longer, soldiers had been waiting for letters and packages that still hadn’t arrived. Morale was flagging, and no one had been able to process the millions of individual pieces of mail piled up in European warehouses from floor to ceiling.

During their ocean crossing, the ship suddenly lurched. Barrels rolled, and young women screamed. Later, the group would learn that their captain had swerved to dodge an attack by a German U-boat. But at the height of the pandemonium, with heavy furniture sliding across the floor, all Davis knew was that there was no use panicking. She scolded her crying companions. “You can’t get off the ship,” she said. “You have to train yourself not to be so frightened that you can’t enjoy.”

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This article is a selection from the March 2023 issue of Smithsonian magazine

A Black woman sitting receives military honors
Davis is honored in a ceremony at Montgomery City Hall. After learning that Davis’ World War II uniform had been stolen, admirers across the U.S. donated replacement items, including a WAC patch. Michael A. McCoy

At 103 years old, Davis is the oldest surviving member of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion—the first battalion of African American women ever to serve in the U.S. military overseas. She can tell stories of working long shifts in rat-infested warehouses in England and France, of chauffeuring military personnel around Europe during the deadliest conflict in human history. But when she looks back at the U-boat incident, her voice brims with amusement and pride.

“I asked the girls, I said, ‘Now what’s the point of being afraid right now? You can’t do one earthly thing but pray,’” she says with a chuckle. “I guess I was the brave one.”

African American men have been serving in the U.S. military since the American Revolution. During the Civil War, about 10 percent of Union soldiers were Black. By World War I, Black men were mostly limited to menial labor. There were exceptions: The 369th Infantry Regiment, a Black unit known as the Harlem Hellfighters, started out unloading cargo on the docks, but when the French needed reinforcements in the trenches, the Hellfighters battled alongside them with a valor that earned them the prestigious Croix de Guerre. Meanwhile, some 1,800 Black women were certified as nurses by the American Red Cross, but only 18 of them were allowed to actually serve, and even then, only at training camps in the U.S.

In 1941, U.S. Representative Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts introduced a bill that would give women a larger role in the armed forces. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed a version of that bill into law, establishing the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) “for the purpose of making available to the national defense the knowledge, skill and special training of women of the nation.” The pioneering Black educator Mary McLeod Bethune, working alongside her close friend first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, argued for a more prominent role for Black women in the military. “We must not fail America,” Bethune urged her fellow African Americans, “and as Americans, we must not let America fail us.” In 1943, the WAAC dropped the word “Auxiliary” and allowed women to become members of the regular Army.

A Black woman sits on a couch surrounded by pillows and art on the wall in her home.
Maj. Fannie Griffin McClendon at home in Tempe, Arizona. After World War II, she served in the U.S. Air Force, including a deployment to Spain. Michael A. McCoy

Fannie Griffin McClendon, now 102, remembers enlisting in the Army in New York City. “I was just graduating from high school at the time,” she says, “and I decided I’d go down and take the exam and see if they’d accept me, which they did.” She went out to celebrate afterward with five other newly minted recruits, who were also Black. She wasn’t used to drinking, and she returned to her apartment tipsy. Her mother was dismayed to learn that she’d joined the Army, asking her daughter, “This is why you want to go into the service—so you can drink?”

McClendon’s training at Fort Des Moines in Iowa was anything but a party. The recruits were impeccably dressed and ready each morning at 6:15. Reveille exercises were at 6:30, and after breakfast, the group spent all day marching formally between various classes and training sessions. Bed checks were at 11. On Saturdays, inspecting officers scrutinized every inch of their rooms and bathrooms, and subjected them to intense questioning. All the while, the Black women were kept separate from their white counterparts.

Altogether, about 6,500 Black women enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II. Charity Edna Adams, a young woman from South Carolina, was recommended by a dean at Wilberforce University, where she’d graduated with a triple major in math, physics and Latin, and a minor in history. In her captivating 1989 memoir, One Woman’s Army, Charity Adams Earley—as she was then named—described her first trip home from Fort Des Moines. A steward on the train tried to bar her from the dining car, declaring, “All persons in uniform first.”

A Black woman holds up a group photo of herself and friends in uniform during world war two
McClendon holds a photo of herself (far left) with a group of recruits at Fort Des Moines during her Army training in 1942. Michael A. McCoy

Before she could object, a blond man with a Southern accent called out: “Well, what in the hell do you think that is that she has on?” Her defender, a second lieutenant, went on: “What in the world are we fighting this damned war for? She’s giving her service, too, and can eat anywhere I can. And, by Jesus, I am going to eat with her in this diner.” The steward finally let Adams through, and the blond soldier did sit at her table.

As Black women rose through the ranks, civilians and military personnel continued to challenge their credentials. When Adams was promoted to major, a white colonel called her to his office and said bluntly, “Don’t let being an officer go to your head; you are still colored, and I want you to remember that. You people have to stay in your place. Why, your folks might have been slaves to my people right in South Carolina.” The tirade went on for three-quarters of an hour, she wrote in her memoir, adding: “I was proud of the fact that I maintained the position of attention for the whole time.”

In mid-December 1944, shortly after Adams’ 26th birthday, a colonel asked whether she’d like to go overseas. She wondered if his question was rhetorical, since no group of African American WACs had ever been sent to Europe. But Adams had been chosen to lead the first.

Black woman soldiers in a relaxed setting during world war two
A member of the Women’s Army Corps’ 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion serves the inaugural Coca-Cola to Army Maj. Charity Adams at the grand opening of the battalion’s snack bar in Rouen, France, July 1, 1945. National Archives

A daunting task awaited the members of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion. All U.S. service members stationed in Europe had individual file cards noting where they were at any given time. But the troops had been moving quickly, and the mail had fallen far behind. It didn’t help that so many service members had the same name; for instance, there were 7,500 Robert Smiths (many listed under variations like Bob, Rob and Bobby).

After their harrowing voyage to Glasgow, the recruits traveled to Birmingham, England, where they moved into the King Edward’s School building. Their accommodations were primitive, with showers outside in the courtyard in the freezing February air. Their work environment was worse. One of the battalion’s first tasks was to clear six airplane hangars filled to the brim with mail, including huge piles of Christmas parcels that had arrived during the recent Battle of the Bulge. Rats and other vermin were feasting on the baked goods. Windows were blacked out to deter air raids.

The unit worked round the clock, seven days a week, in three eight-hour shifts that each processed an average of more than 65,000 pieces of mail. Some packages had been damaged beyond repair, so a special unit had to reassemble their scattered contents by matching up dates and packing materials. The Six Triple Eight—as they were called—also had the task of censoring letters, making sure no sensitive information would compromise the war effort. (The job seemed juicy at first, but many of the letters were tediously long-winded.)

a black and white photograph of men and an all Black woman military unit sorting mail during world war two
Members of the Women’s Army Corps 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion sort packages taken from mail sacks by French civilian employees at the 17th Base Post Office in Paris on November 7, 1945. National Archives

In film footage from the era, the women of the Six Triple Eight look cheerful and energetic as they sort letters and packages into bins and cubes. “We as Black women were used to being together as family,” explained one of the women in the 2019 documentary The SixTripleEight: No Mail, Low Morale. “We were trained and brought up like that. We respected each other. When trouble came with us, we were all together. That’s why I think we got that mail down.”

The women had to do everything for themselves. They fixed their own trucks and they fixed one another’s hair. White WACs in Europe could go to local beauty parlors wherever they happened to be stationed, but Black women needed special equipment and expertise that would have been available in Birmingham, Alabama, but not in Birmingham, England. The group’s officers succeeded in getting all the straightening combs, marcel irons and other staples they needed, and the unit built its own beauty salon. African American nurses stationed around the area began showing up on their days off to get their hair done properly.

On March 20, a white male general paid a visit. He wanted to see every member of the unit, but Adams told him that only a third of the women were available to appear in formation; the others were working, sleeping, showering, eating or otherwise occupied. Unsatisfied, the general told Adams he would send a white first lieutenant to show the major how to run her battalion. “Over my dead body, sir,” she replied.

The outraged general left, promising Adams she would hear from him again. By midnight, she learned that he was preparing to draw up court-martial charges against her. The officers of the Six Triple Eight rushed to draw up their own court-martial charges against the general, accusing him of violating an order that prohibited racially charged language. (The goal of that order was to keep America’s allies from worrying about a lack of harmony among U.S. troops.) The general ultimately dropped his charges, and the Six Triple Eight dropped theirs.

By May 1945, the women had achieved in three months what no one before them had managed to do in two years: They’d cleared the mail backlog in England. From there, they were transferred to Rouen, France, to tackle more mail issues. The women of the Six Triple Eight found themselves in a jubilant country, fresh from extended V-E Day celebrations. Their pride at being part of military history intensified as they slept in barracks where Napoleon’s troops were said to have stayed and marched to the site where Joan of Arc had been burned at the stake.

On the Continent, the group had a more interesting social life than they’d had in Birmingham. The athletes in the Six Triple Eight formed sports teams and competed with other WAC units. When word got out that a battalion of African American women was stationed in Rouen, Black male soldiers began flocking to their gates, along with some white ones. The men invited them out on the weekends for dinner, dancing and other excursions.

One of those outings led to McClendon’s darkest memory of the Six Triple Eight. Three women from the battalion—Mary H. Bankston, Mary Jewel Barlow and Dolores Mercedes Browne—were killed in a Jeep accident while riding with male soldiers. “I had to identify two of the girls, because they didn’t have their dog tags on,” McClendon recalls. The battalion’s leaders made all the funeral arrangements, tasking German prisoners with building wooden caskets. The young women were laid to rest at the Normandy American Cemetery—three of only four women to be buried there alongside more than 9,000 men. (The fourth, Elizabeth Ann Richardson, was a Red Cross volunteer killed in a Piper Cub plane crash near Rouen in July 1945.)

Before the Six Triple Eight left Europe, Adams received a visit from the general who’d berated her in Birmingham. “It’s not easy to say what I’ve come to say,” he told her, according to her memoir. “The only Negroes I have ever known personally were those who were in the servant capacity or my subordinates in the Army. It’s been a long time since anyone challenged me, Black or white, but you took me on. You outsmarted me, and I am proud that I know you.”

The Six Triple Eight finished their work in early 1946, clearing the last backlogs of mail in Paris. A booklet called The WAC, published in late 1945, declared that the Six Triple Eight had broken all existing records for mail delivery. Their leader, Charity Adams, was promoted to lieutenant colonel. After the WAC director’s, it was the highest possible rank for a woman in the U.S. armed forces at the time.

The European theater of war could be grueling, but for the women of the Six Triple Eight, it was also liberating. Paris and London were cosmopolitan and eye-opening. The restaurants and dance halls weren’t segregated in Europe, and the women were invited to eat as honored guests at the homes of local families. They returned to the U.S. with broad new perspectives, but America wasn’t quite ready to catch up.

During the war, Black newspapers and labor organizations launched what was known as the Double V Campaign—a push for civil rights victories at home along with victories against fascism abroad. Langston Hughes captured the spirit in his poem “Beaumont to Detroit: 1943”: “I ask you this question / Cause I want to know / How long I got to fight / BOTH HITLER—AND JIM CROW.” But if returning Black soldiers expected the same reception as white service members, they were tragically disappointed. In the South especially, they were often met with derision, even deadly violence.

Black women faced another set of obstacles: The war had given women of all races a chance to serve in empowering new roles. But once the war was over, women were removed from the workforce so returning male soldiers could take over their jobs. In the military, it would be decades until women could serve in the same units as men. There was no parade for the Six Triple Eight, no honor or glory. As Corporal Lena Derriecott Bell King later put it, “We never heard anything more about it. All of that was behind us.”

Romay Johnson Davis had hoped to become a doctor, but only a few elite universities for African Americans offered medical degrees, making those spots highly competitive. Her military record didn’t make any difference. “At that time,” Davis recalls wryly, “Black people weren’t joyously invited to do anything.” Instead of medicine, Davis studied fashion design and made clothing for a living.

She also traveled widely, including two trips to Africa. “I got lost two or three times traveling while I was in a foreign country on the street by myself,” she says. “Not safe, not a wise thing to do, but I couldn’t resist it.” When she was in her 70s, Davis joined a friend’s young son at taekwondo classes and went on to earn a black belt. Her adventures in the Six Triple Eight shaped the course of her life, showing her from an early age, as she now puts it, that “the world is big and wide.”

Sheree Robertson, the daughter of Six Triple Eight veteran Anna Mae Robertson, says her parents—both World War II veterans who migrated from the South to Milwaukee—“continued to serve their country in a civilian way.” She and her seven siblings used to join their parents at fair housing marches led by Father James Groppi, a local Catholic priest who spearheaded much of Milwaukee’s civil rights activism. Anna Mae used to sing her children the gospel song and civil rights anthem “This Little Light of Mine.” “When people ask me about my mother,” Sheree says, “I say she’s a bright light, because she’s done good in her life and her light shines brightly.”

McClendon was one of the few members of the Six Triple Eight who went on to have a career in the military. Shortly after the end of World War II, she enlisted in the Air Force. She was promoted to major and married another major, and both of them served until they retired. But she expected to end her life without any special recognition for her service in World War II.

So she was astonished, in her 90s, when she learned she and the other members of the Six Triple Eight were finally going to be honored as heroes.

Colonel Edna Cummings was reading online one day in 2015 when she stumbled upon a story about another African American colonel named Edna: Charity Edna Adams. “It caught my attention, especially some of the challenges she had gaining respect, being a trailblazer and a pioneer,” says Cummings, a retired Army officer now in her 60s who has held leadership positions at the Department of Defense and the FBI. “There were so many similarities between her story and mine.”

Cummings helped lead an effort for a monument to the Six Triple Eight at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Back in the 1990s, General Colin Powell had championed a memorial there for the Buffalo Soldiers, the first African American regiments formed after the Civil War. Commander Carlton G. Philpot, an African American Navy historian who’d led the fundraising for that project, was enthusiastic about adding a statue to honor the first battalion of African American women.

a Black woman sits for a portrait in her home office
Retired Col. Edna Cummings, at home in Laurel, Maryland, was largely responsible for bringing the Six Triple Eight into the public eye. Michael A. McCoy

On a chilly November day in 2018, five members of the Six Triple Eight attended the unveiling ceremony in wheelchairs, their laps covered with blankets. “My dad is a World War II veteran,” said Jerry Moran, the senior U.S. senator from Kansas, addressing the women. “I never thought about it on a personal level until I was with you today—what role you and others played in my family’s life, to make sure that my mom and dad communicated with each other for the long period of World War II. So from my family, a personal thank you to you, for keeping two people who loved each other together. You did them a great service. When we unveil this memorial, when we unveil this monument, what we’re really saying is this: Thank you for your service. We respect you. And we love you. God bless you.”

That was just the beginning. James Theres, the historian who directed the Six Triple Eight documentary, suggested to Cummings that the women should be awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. The director had produced an earlier documentary about the “Hello Girls”—a group of several dozen white American recruits who ran the telephone lines in France during World War I—and he’d been involved in legislation to honor them with the medal (an effort that is still in progress). “He basically gave me a template,” Cummings says. “I worked in the Pentagon—it’s just like staff work. You develop a draft and you just start making calls.”

a woman holds up her phone showing a photograph of her time in the military
Cummings joined the ROTC in college so she could be “part of the solution,” she says. “You fight to make your home a better place.” Michael A. McCoy

Moran was happy to sponsor the legislation. He was joined by Gwen Moore, a U.S. representative from Wisconsin who knew Anna Mae Robertson’s daughter Sheree. It was a promising start—especially since Moran was a Republican and Moore was a Democrat—but a Congressional Gold Medal needs approval from at least two-thirds of Congress. Historically, the bar has been extremely high. George Washington was the first to receive the medal in 1776, before he became president. Other notable recipients have included aviation pioneers Orville and Wilbur Wright, inventor Thomas Edison, polio vaccine developer Jonas Salk, animator Walt Disney and poet Robert Frost. The singer Marian Anderson was the first African American to receive the honor, in 1977.

Word went out among veterans, churches and other networks of people who might be able to help persuade politicians. African American newspaper archives from the World War II era proved to be a huge asset—they had stories about individual members of the battalion, and Cummings was able to get a list of the women’s hometowns. That made it easier for constituents to call their representatives and mention Six Triple Eight veterans who came from their own districts.

In the end, the bill passed unanimously in both the Senate and the House of Representatives. President Joe Biden signed it into law on March 14, 2022. The medal, now in the process of being minted, will have a unique design, with duplicates available for honorees and their families. In the words of the bill, the medal will recognize “the contributions made by those women to increase the morale of all United States personnel stationed in the European Theater of Operations during World War II.” Nearly 80 years later, the women had once again unified their country and boosted morale. As Cummings puts it, “I like to think the Six Triple Eight brought Congress together.”

Since then, the fame of the Six Triple Eight has been growing. In August 2022, a committee made up mostly of retired military officers recommended that Fort Lee, a Virginia Army base, be renamed after two African American officers: Arthur Gregg and Charity Adams. This summer, Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours, the leading outfit for World War II tourism, will offer its first 6888th Legacy Tour, with stops at every location where the battalion served. A Broadway musical about the Six Triple Eight is in the works. So is a Netflix film, written and directed by Tyler Perry and starring Kerry Washington and Oprah Winfrey.

The sudden barrage of attention is gratifying for the centenarian veterans, but it can also be a bit tiring. Romay Davis says the rise to celebrity status, while “so exciting and so unreal,” would have been a lot easier to handle earlier in her life. “It’s exciting when you are young and vital, kicking up your heels and all that,” she says.

Still, that wasn’t the reason these women joined the Army. “I would have climbed up a mountain to get on the list to serve overseas,” declared Six Triple Eight veteran Gladys Carter. “We were going to do our duty, despite all the bad things that happened. America was our home.”

Anna Mae Robertson put it even more straightforwardly: “I just decided that I wanted to be in the Army. I guess I felt as though I wanted to do something.” Her daughter Sheree, who played a major role in the Congressional Gold Medal effort, appreciates that her mother is one of very few members of the battalion who lived to enjoy any glory. She makes sure to add: “I didn’t need anyone to give my mother a Congressional Gold Medal to recognize her for her military service to validate who she is.”

a woman in a colorful jackets sits for a portrait outside
Anna Mae Robertson joined the Army after both her parents died. While she served with the Six Triple Eight, her brother fought in the Navy. Michael A. McCoy

Yet the award is validating for Americans from all walks of life, especially other African Americans whose own achievements have been hard-won. “Those women did an awful lot to inspire people and were not acknowledged for it,” said John Thompson Jr., famed coach of the Georgetown Hoyas basketball team, in the Six Triple Eight documentary. The actor Blair Underwood, the executive producer of the forthcoming musical, told Broadway.com why he was moved to be part of the project: “The women of the Six Triple Eight are true American patriots who are long overdue to have their story told.”

two woman sit a kitchen table reading together
Robertson at home in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, with her daughter Melody Hendrix, a nurse. Between 1954 and 1964, Robertson had eight children. Michael A. McCoy

The medal holds special meaning for the African Americans who make up a third of all women in the U.S. armed forces today. Cummings was the first Black woman ROTC graduate at her university. Throughout her long career, she’s been honored in the Army Women’s Foundation Hall of Fame and received a Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition. But she still recalls lower-ranking men at the Pentagon who failed to salute her until she reprimanded them: “You don’t salute officers?” There’s a reason she worked so tirelessly to get recognition for the Six Triple Eight. They’re the role models she and so many others wish they’d always had.

an all Black woman military marches in France during world war two
Members of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion take part in a parade and ceremony on May 27, 1945, which was held in honor of Joan of Arc at the marketplace where she was burned at the stake in Rouen, France. National Archives
As far as Congress is concerned, the Six Triple Eight were simply great Americans who crossed oceans and cultural barriers to serve their country brilliantly. They kept troops connected with their loved ones back home and made America a more perfect union. When the Congressional Gold Medal is minted, it will hang in the Smithsonian for everyone to see—a mirror for our better selves and a beacon for all the brave girls still to come.

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