By Mark F. Gray
Despite the racism and oppression from a nation that treated them as something other than full citizens, the hidden figures of World War II proved to be a group of resilient African American women who fought to serve a nation reluctant to give them the chance. The unheralded soldiers were finally given their honor for service to the United States military with a member of the AFRO’s founding family among them.
Among 855 soldiers honored for their service is Vashti Murphy-Matthews, one of the five daughters of Carl Murphy, who was AFRO Publisher from 1922-1967. Vashti rarely talked to her children about her experiences during the war but influenced her son Rodger Matthews to become a career soldier who retired as a Lieutenant Colonel after 35 years in the U.S. Army.
“We couldn’t be prouder of what our mother did to serve this country,” Matthews tells the AFRO. “She was extremely proud to have worn the uniform and it’s beyond words to describe this honor that was long overdue for her and all the ladies of the 6888th battalion.”
Matthews, a 1974 graduate of Morgan State, was encouraged by his mother to join the College’s ROTC on campus which was during the height of the Vietnam War. Her guidance was his motivation to become an aviator for three decades.
“She knew that if I graduated after serving in ROTC at Morgan, I could enter the military as an officer,” Matthews adds.
The ladies of the 6888th U.S. Army Postal Directory Battalion were remembered for their contributions to the victorious war efforts with a monument that was dedicated in their honor during ceremonies November 30 at the Buffalo Soldier Monument Park in Fort Leavenworth, Ks. The statue features a 25-inch Bronze bust of the unit’s Commanding Officer, Lt. Col. Charity Adams (Earley). Its eight black granite panels highlight the unit’s lineage, and on the back panel is an alphabetical list, by states, of the original group of 855 African American ladies assigned to the unit during the war.
This battalion was stationed between Birmingham, England, Rouen and Paris, France. Their role was vital to the United States soldier’s psyche as they faced perilous conditions while assisting in the defense of democracy overseas. The “six triple eight”, as they were known, were instrumental in successfully fulfilling the mission to sort and clear a more than two-year backlog of mail in the European Theater of Operations (ETO).
Helping ensure the mail was delivered to troops during the international upheaval made this Battalion’s impact pivotal. After limited contact with friends and family back home, motivation for the troops was hard to come by. Their assignment was to sort and redirect the delivery of the millions of backlogged letters and packages that had all but ceased to be delivered before their arrival.
The resilience of the women who stuck to the motto, “no mail, no morale” was tested. When they arrived in Europe the ladies worked in converted aircraft hangars with no heat during an extremely cold winter. The 6888th Battalion was segregated and wasn’t allowed to sleep, shower or eat in the same facilities as the other female personnel or soldiers. They still managed to devise a system that got the stacks of mail that were packed into three air hangars, delivered by creating and maintaining information cards for soldiers. Each shift averaged 65,000 pieces of mail processed, which cleaned out the backlog in just three months.
“She would be proud of all the ladies who sacrificed themselves to improve the morale of soldiers by their efforts to clean out the European Theatre,” Matthews said.
This article originally appeared in The Afro.