African American Transportation History: A High-Risk Transatlantic Voyage for the Trailblazing 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion

As World War II continued to rage in the European Theater, the first and largest contingent of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion completed an eventful transatlantic voyage when the ship transporting them arrived in Glasgow, Scotland, on February 12, 1945. The 6888th — nicknamed the “Six Triple Eight” — was one of the small number of military units consisting entirely of African American women to serve overseas during World War II. The 6888th was also the largest of those units.

The 6888th, which had been established as part of the Women’s Army Corps, was comprised of 855 women. With a substantial shortage of U.S. military personnel able to process mail in a timely and effective manner in the European Theater, the women of the 6888th were assigned to travel to England to handle that herculean task.

This unit’s first contingent –a total of 500 women — departed from New York on board the French luxury liner-turned-Allied troopship Île de France on February 3, 1945. While en route to their destination, these women found themselves contending with everything from seasickness to overcrowded lodging accommodations.

When the Île de France was about a day away from Glasgow, the voyage took on a menacing character when German U-boats began to give chase to the ship. Alyce Dixon, one of the members of the 6888th on board the Île de France for that journey across the Atlantic, took time during a 2009 ceremony at Arlington National Cemetery to talk about the ship’s close encounter with U-boats. “It was frightening,” she recalled.

Essie Woods, another member of the 6888th, likewise recounted that experience when she was interviewed in 2002 about her wartime service. “That Île de France was a fast ship, and [she] outmaneuvered them,” said Woods. “But we didn’t realize how dangerous — I tell everybody, war is a terrible thing and we should never want to experience it. But you are never aware of your danger when you are involved, you don’t realize how dangerous it is. But we were lucky, you know — just lucky.”

The women of the 6888th had to hold on tightly as the Île de France, in order to avoid being torpedoed by the U-boats, undertook a series of sharp but ultimately successful zigzag maneuvers. The Île de France was then escorted to Glasgow by a convoy of Allied ships, submarines, and airplanes.

That first contingent of the 6888th to arrive in Europe eventually boarded a train for Birmingham, England, to begin sorting through thousands of backlogged letters and packages for distribution to U.S. troops throughout Europe. (The unit’s second contingent arrived 50 days later.) At Birmingham and later in France, the 6888th performed a vital and morale-boosting service by eliminating the massive pileup of mail and getting those letters and packages delivered to their intended recipients. (The above May 1945 photo features several members of the 6888th taking part in a ceremony in the French city of Rouen.)

Photo Credit: Public Domain

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