Three Women: Lives Lost, A Legacy Born…The Six Triple Eight
Just north of the River Seine in France is Rouen, the capital city of Normandy. The ancient metropolis known for its many cathedrals is often referred to as the “city with a hundred bells chiming in the air.” But on July 8,1945, the atmosphere was quieted by the loss of three American soldiers. Sergeant Delores Brown, and two Privates First-Class — Mary H. Bankston and Mary J. Barlow. They were members of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, also known as the “Six Triple Eight.”
During WWII, postal mail was the primary method for thousand of American troops in Europe to communicate with loved ones at home. Constant movement throughout the continent made the delivery of written words and care packages to a battle-weary military force a daunting task. Without a doubt, many families, friends, and supporters in the U.S. were also fraught with despair because they had not heard from those serving in Europe for months, or years in some cases. Many at home did not know if their loved ones were alive, wounded, or dead.
The Army’s leadership was concerned that the lack of reliable mail service was causing low morale within the ranks and impacting their warfighting abilities. They estimated that it would take six months to clear the mail stored for a couple of years in rodent infested, dirty, dark, and damp warehouses and aircraft hangars in England and France. Other military units had tried but failed to clear the massive mail backlog — a formidable mission.
The Army’s solution to this quagmire was an 855-member unit of carefully screened African American women, later named the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion (also known as the Six Triple Eight). Arriving in February 1945, their first assignment was Birmingham, England, the site of the worst mail backlog. The unit had no previous training in postal operations. However, under the leadership of 26-year-old Major Charity Adams, the Six Triple Eight worked three shifts daily, and routed upwards of 65,000 pieces of mail per shift as bombs exploded in the distance. In three months, the Six Triple Eight processed for delivery approximately 17 million pieces of mail — half the time expected. Their success in England earned them the reputation of being one of the “best and most efficient unit in the entire Women’s Army Corps.”
After reducing the backlog in Birmingham England, their next stop was Rouen, France. The mail backlog was not as intense and the women had time to experience the city, travel, and socialize while they were not working. During this assignment, three of the women attended an authorized social gathering, probably several miles away from their military station. The senior ranking woman was Sergeant Delores Browne from Connecticut. The two other women, Mary J. Barlow also from Connecticut, and Private First-Class Mary H. Bankston from New York, were also members of the Six Triple Eight’s entertainment troupe. Regardless of how the women became connected, we do know that on July 8, 1945, these three soldiers in their early twenties died in a jeep accident while returning from that event. Bankston and Barlowe died immediately at the accident scene, and Browne died from her injuries on July 13, 1945.
Death was not the only tragedy for these young women. More tragic than their death, was the unwillingness of the U.S. Army to afford these soldiers a proper burial. Due to wartime conditions, or for some other unknown reason, the Army chose not to return the bodies back to the U.S. or pay for their funerals. In the Six Triple Eight documentary the Six Triple Eight « lincolnpennyfilms Major Fannie McClendon, 100, Tempe, Arizona mentioned that she did not know that remains were buried in shelter halves or military tents. Fortunately, Major Adams insisted on a respectful funeral and collected money to pay for coffins made by German prisoners. Adams did not want the women buried in pine boxes. As a unit filled with skilled women from many walks of life, some of them had experience handling human remains. Captain Abbie Campbell recalled their burials, “We had women who had worked in funeral parlors before…They fixed up the ladies beautifully.”
The final resting place for these women was among the now 9,300 graves in the historic Normandy American Cemetery in Coleville-sur-Mer, France. Only four women are buried in Normandy, three are these black women from the Six Triple Eight. Not only does their legacy lives in one of the world’s most visited cemeteries, but their legacy will remain intact with the award of the Six Triple Eight Congressional Gold Medal. The Gold Medal bill passed the Senate in April 2021 with a goal of passing the House of Representatives by Veterans Day 2021.
Rest in Power, Paradise, and Peace — Browne, Barlow, and Bankston. You were members of a distinguished group of women that succeeded where others failed and got the job done!
Author’s note: The Six Triple Eight’s final assignment was Paris, France. The last of the unit returned to the U.S in February 1946 without ceremony and was disbanded at Fort Dix, New Jersey in March 1946. In 2019, the Secretary of the Army awarded the unit a Meritorious Unit Commendation. In May 2019, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom dedicated a Blue Plaque at the King Edwards School, Birmingham England US Ambassador presents plaque to commemorate 6888th Battalion — King Edwards School (kes.org.uk)
More about the Six Triple Eight The SixTripleEight: No Mail, Low Morale | The National WWII Museum | New Orleans (nationalww2museum.org)
Help Preserve the Six Triple Eight’s Legacy: Contact your member in the House of Representatives and ask them to co-sponsor H.R.1012 Cosponsors — H.R.1012–117th Congress (2021–2022): ‘Six Triple Eight’ Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2021 | Congress.gov | Library of Congress
Written by Colonel Edna W. Cummings, U.S. Army (Retired).
Major Frank Phillips, U.S. Army (Retired) contributed to this story.