By Edna W. Cummings,
Col. US Army (Ret.)
Touched, humbled and enlightened, the 6888th Battalion families and friends returned from Scotland, England and France with a deeper understanding of their ancestors’ military service during World War II.
From June 18 to June 30, the descendants of the women who served the historic 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion in the European Theater of Operations (ETO) walked where their ancestors walked.
At the forefront of Black journalism, the AFRO sent war correspondents to the ETO who chronicled the activities of Black troops. The 6888th articles comprised the Stephen Ambrose Historical Tour’s road book and provided a first-hand glimpse into the unit’s experiences. Vashti Murphy Matthews, daughter of AFRO publisher, Carl J. Murphy, was a member of the 6888th and wrote about her time overseas. Vashti’s son, Lieutenant Colonel (Ret.) Rodger Matthews and his wife Carol joined the tour. The AFRO now shares highlights of descendants’ European pilgrimage, the first of its kind.
Reminiscent of the hospitality received by the 6888th Postal Battalion almost eight decades ago, the pre-tour began on June 19 in Glasgow, Scotland. University of Glasgow Professor Dr. Timothy Peacock invited the group to his home for a home cooked meal prepared by his mother. Dining with other university colleagues, guests enjoyed a scrumptious Scottish meal of baked salmon, garden raspberries, chocolate meringue pie and other local favorites. Dinner concluded with after dinner whiskey shots for interested guests.
Although Glasgow Scotland was just the port of embarkation for the 6888th, Peacock recreated the hospitality the 6888th experienced when they left a segregated America and interacted with the United Kingdom community. The Scotland pre-tour concluded with a visit to the Greenock and Gourock ports, the first stop on a journey where 6888th’s legacy began on Feb. 12, 1945. The now historic unit’s legacy is their solution to the military’s mail and morale crisis in the ETO while encountering overt sexism and racism. They were also the only Black unit from the Women’s Army Corps to serve overseas during WWII.
In March 2022, President Biden signed Public Law 117-97 awarding the 6888th the highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal, making them the only women’s military unit to receive this recognition.
After touring Glasgow Scotland, the nine pre-tour guests boarded a bus for Birmingham, England to join the other tour members. At a rest stop, they met singer Howard Hewitt and Carolyn Griffey from the R&B group Shalamar, who were in the UK on a Fortieth Anniversary Tour. That evening, guests joined the twelve other family and friends for a welcome reception at the historic Grand Hotel, Birmingham, England, where Malcom X lodged during his visit to England in the mid-60s.
Garry Stewart, Managing Director Black Heritage Walks Network and responsible for the 6888th Blue Plaque coordinated participation in the June 22, Windrush 75th Anniversary activities. The next day, the group visited the King Edwards School where the 6888th resided and worked in the surrounding area.
Greeted by the staff and students at the school, Helen Murdoch, a British re-enactor gave an overview of women’s roles in WWII. Letters for Victory authors Martin and Francis Collins who documented the ETO postal network headquartered in Sutton, Coldfield joined the audience. To close the presentation, Col. Cummings shared the video of the upcoming Broadway bound 6888th Musical’s opening song, “All I Need.” The King Edwards School visit unleashed a range of emotions and nostalgia as the descendants formed a line in front of the school to recreate the iconic February 1945 inspection photo with Major Charity Adams and Captain Mary Kearney.
Cynthia Scott, daughter of 6888th veteran Elizabeth Barker Johnson commented, “I can feel my mother’s spirit.”
The Birmingham visit concluded with a private afternoon tea with the Lord Mayor of Birmingham, Councillor Chaman Lal and his wife.
The next morning on June 24, guests traveled to London, and while en-route, visited Shakespeare’s birthplace, Stratford-Upon-Avon. Instead of a planned short visit to the statue, the group became bystanders at the city’s UK Armed Forces Day ceremony. Afterwards, they met with Mayor Kate Rolfe who provided a tour of the council house and walked with the group to Shakespeare’s statue. Three descendants positioned themselves around the statue and recreated another 6888th historic image. About an hour later, the group arrived in London and Andre Theobolds and Major (Ret.) Natasha Hinds, U.S. Army met with family members residing in the city. Coincidentally, while serving in the ETO, several members of the 6888th also met with their family members. Author, historian and Six Triple Eight Netflix movie consultant, Kevin Hymel joined the group in London. The next day’s visit to Bletchley Park enlightened everyone about World War II codebreakers. Private Annie Knight’s two daughters (Carmen Jordan Cox and Karen Jordan) recalled their mother’s classified job as a Cryptographic Code Compiler prior to joining the 6888th. The Churchill War Rooms concluded the London portion of the tour. Afterwards, they boarded a ferry for the six hour crossing of the English Channel with an evening arrival in Le’Harve, France.
May 8, 1945 marked the end of the war in Europe and the 6888th relocated to Rouen, France shortly thereafter. They worked and were housed in a spinning mill converted to Caserne Tallandier barracks in the Le-Petit Quevilly commune. While in Rouen, the 6888th worked alongside German POWs. Janice Martin recalls her mother, Indiana Hunt-Martin mentioning odd aromas while the 6888th was stationed in Rouen. The remnants of a concentration camp and German Prisoner of War compounds could have been the source of those unusual scents. In July1945, Vashti Murphy wrote about the “Shower Heavenly, After Baths in Helmets in Rouen.
Rouen’s tour began with a visit to Napoleon’s statue followed by a street renaming ceremony hosted by Petit Quevilly’s Mayor, Charlotte Goujon honoring Lieutenant Colonel Charity Adams, 6888th Commander. Afterwards, the group walked to the plaza (now a shopping area) where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake at 19 years old. In a few days after the group’s departure, a Rouen police station became a casualty of the riots protesting the death of a teenager with Algerian heritage killed by the police.
The beaches of Normandy and Normandy American Cemetery were sites that stirred ancestral recollections. Hymel provided insights about the Normandy landings and the 6888th Tour Historian, Col. Cummings infused the discussions with information about the 320th Balloon Barrage Battalion, the Red Ball Express and other Black units who served overseas during World War II. The 90 degree cliffs on the beaches and the walk through the German bunkers at Point-du-Hoc were akin to underground concrete housing. The view of the now vegetation filled battlefields and irregular landscape once riddled with artillery reminded everyone why improving troop morale was crucial to the war.
Tremika Massey, granddaughter of 6888th member Hester Givens, met her husband Corporal Samuel Massey while they were both stationed in France. Cpl. Massey served in the 227th Port Company, one of the Black units that landed at Utah Beach during the Normandy invasion. Port companies also removed the dead bodies from beaches after D-Day.
Normandy American Cemetery provided a moment of reflection and solace during the wreath laying ceremony for the three 6888th women who died in July 1945 while stationed in Rouen. Only four women are buried at Normandy, three are from the 6888th. The Army refused to pay for the burials and German POWs built the coffins with funds collected by Major Adams. Normandy’s guests paused while Tremika Massey sang, “His Eye is On the Sparrow.” Afterwards, Assistant Superintendent John Bolt accompanied guests to the three graves of Sergeant Delores Brown, and Privates First Class Mary Barlow and Mary Bankston. In a gesture to highlight the name to the body beneath the soil, Bolt rubbed sand from Omaha Beach into the names of the markers.
In early November 1945, approximately half of the 6888th departed Rouen for Paris, and the others went back to the U.S. While in Paris, the 6888th continued to clear mail backlogs, and some worked on telephone switchboards. A few women also enrolled in classes and the basketball team won the 1946 WAC ETO Championship. In March 1946 the last of the unit returned to the U.S. without ceremony or recognition for their service. The Army deactivated the 6888th on March 9, 1946 at Camp Kilmer, NJ. “Adams, can your troops march?” General Eisenhower’s Communications Zone Commander, Lieutenant General John C.H. Lee questioned the 26 year-old Adams during dinner at the now Michelin rated five star George V Hotel Four Seasons in Paris. She responded with the only appropriate answer, “Sir, you’ve never seen better marching troops.” Their conversation set in motion one of the most iconic videos of the 6888th, marching in Birmingham, England and Adams’ trajectory as an icon of tenacity and resilience. The hotel visit ended the 6888th Legacy Tour but did not end the quest for knowledge.