102-year WWII veteran of Separate Mail Unit honored

MONTGOMERY, Ala. (AP) — Millions of letters and packages sent to American troops had piled up in warehouses in Europe as Allied troops pushed into the heartland of Hitler’s Germany near the end of World War II. It wasn’t junk mail – it was the primary link between home and the front long before video chats, text messages or even routine long-distance phone calls.

The task of clearing the huge backlog of an army that was still segregated by race fell to the largest all-black, all-female group to serve in the war, the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion. On Tuesday, the oldest living member of the unit is honored.

Romay Davis, 102, will be recognized for her service at an event at Montgomery City Hall. This follows President Joe Biden’s decision in March to sign a bill authorizing the Congressional Gold Medal for Unity, dubbed the “Six Triple Eight.”

Davis, in an interview at her home on Monday, said the unit was due to recognition, and she is happy to participate on behalf of other members who have already passed away.

“I think it’s an exciting event, and it’s something families will remember,” Davis said. “It’s not mine, just mine. No. It’s up to everyone.

The medals themselves won’t be ready for months, but leaders have decided to hold events for Davis and five other surviving members of the 6888th given their advanced age.

After her five brothers, Davis enlisted in the army in 1943. After the war, the Virginia native married, had a 30-year career in the fashion industry in New York and is retired to Alabama. She earned a martial arts black belt in the late 70s and joined the workforce to work in a grocery store in Montgomery for more than two decades until she was 101 years old.

While smaller groups of African-American nurses served in Africa, Australia and England, none matched the size or power of the 6888th, according to a unit history compiled by the Pentagon.

Davis’ unit was part of the Women’s Army Corps established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1943. Racial separation being the practice of the time, the corps added African-American units the following year at the request of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and civil rights leader. Mary McLeod Bethune, according to Unit History.

More than 800 black women formed the 6888th, which began sailing to England in February 1945. Once there, they faced not only mountains of undelivered mail, but also racism and sexism. According to the story, they were denied entry to an American Red Cross club and hotels, and a senior officer was threatened with being replaced by a white first mate when some members of the unit missed an inspection.

“Above my corpse, sir,” replied the unit’s commanding officer, Major Charity Adams. She has not been replaced.

Working under the motto “No Mail, Low Morale”, the women served 24/7 and developed a new tracking system that processed around 65,000 items per shift, allowing them to eliminate a backlog of six-month courier in just three months. .

“We all had to be run in, so to speak, to do what needed to be done,” said Davis, who worked primarily as a fleet driver. “The mail situation was in such a terrible state that they didn’t think the girls could make it. But they proved a point.

A month after the end of the war in Europe, in June 1945, the group sailed for France to begin work there on additional stacks of mail. Receiving better treatment from the liberated French than they would have received under racist Jim Crow regimes back home, members were feted at a victory parade in Rouen and invited to private homes to dinner, Davis said.

“I didn’t find any Europeans against us. They were happy to have us,” she said.

The 6888th was previously honored with a monument which was dedicated in 2018 at the Buffalo Soldier Military Park in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. But immediately after the war, the members returned home to an American society that was still years away from the start of the modern civil rights movement with the Montgomery Bus Boycott. in 1955.

United States Senator Jerry Moran of Kansas helped prepare the bill to present the Congressional Gold Medal to members of the unit.

“Although the odds were against them, the women of the Six Triple Eight handled millions of letters and packages while deployed in Europe, helping to connect World War II soldiers with loved ones back home, like my father and my mother,” Moran said in a statement earlier this year.

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Reeves is a member of AP’s Race and Ethnicity team.