When Vernon Baker received the call that he was to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor in January 1997 for his actions against the Germans in northern Italy in April 1945 as part of the United States Army’s all-Black 92nd Infantry Division, he was taken aback. “I wondered why I was singled out to receive the Medal of Honor,” he recalled in a 2003 interview with The National WWII Museum. He thought of so many fallen comrades who did as much as he did, if not more. Yet he also admitted to feelings of anger: “Why wait 52 years? If the deed was done 52 years ago, why wasn’t there recognition then?”
Baker’s story and his questioning of the timing of the award after the decades-long wait mirrors the experiences of many other African Americans who served in World War II. As historian Matthew Delmont puts it so starkly in his recent book, Half American, “official recognition came slowly for Black World War II veterans.”[i] After such a lengthy delay, this recognition finally came in the 1990s for men such as Baker.
For Black women servicemembers, though, it was an even more protracted process. African American women who served either in the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service), in the WAC (Women’s Army Corps), as WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots), or in the Marine Corps were frequently overshadowed by their male counterparts.
Nonetheless, undeniable progress occurred. This Women’s History Month, The National WWII Museum would like to draw attention to one particularly significant example: long overdue recognition for the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion.
The story of the 6888th (or Six Triple Eight), the only predominantly Black WAC unit to spend time overseas during World War II, is increasingly and, thankfully, familiar to more and more Americans. For those wishing to know more about the Six Triple Eight and their time in the European Theater of Operations in 1945, this extremely informative article for the Museum’s website by Edna Cummings and James William Theres details the service of Major Charity Adams and the more than 850 troops--officers and enlisted women--she commanded.
Capping this growing notoriety was news from Capitol Hill. On February 28, 2022, the United States House of Representatives passed House Resolution (H.R.) 1012 by a vote of 422–0, recommending a Congressional Gold Medal for the 6888th. Introduced a year earlier by Democratic Representative Gwen Moore from Wisconsin’s 4th Congressional District, the Resolution explicitly commended “the pioneering military service of those women, the devotion to duty of those women, and the contributions made by those women to increase the morale of all United States personnel stationed in the European Theater of Operations during World War II.” Republican Congressman Jake LaTurner (Kansas’s 2nd Congressional District) became a co-sponsor of the Resolution. Bipartisan support pushed the bill forward in the United States. With backing from Senator Jacky Rosen (D) from Nevada and Senator Jerry Moran (R) from Kansas, the Senate had already approved the bill (S. 321) in 2021.
On March 14, 2022, President Joe Biden signed the bill into law. With such a long and dignified legacy (George Washington was the first recipient of the Congressional Gold Medal) of national appreciation for the actions of Americans, news of these Congressional acts electrified proponents of national recognition for the 6888th. Three months after President Biden put his signature on the bill, a crowd assembled in the Military Women’s Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery to celebrate and commemorate.
At Arlington, retired Army Colonel Edna Cummings reminded the audience of the significance of the 6888th’s place in US history. “The 6888th is now the only women’s military unit to receive the nation’s highest civilian honor, the Congressional Gold Medal,” Cummings stated. For her, this was an incredibly proud moment. Along with retired Army Master Sergeant Elizabeth Helm-Frazier, Cummings (she has also served as Army Reserve Ambassador) had ceaselessly campaigned for years for recognition for the unit. Now it had finally transpired.
The minting of the Congressional Gold Medal for the 6888th should be completed in 2023. It is long overdue for these women.
[i] Matthew Delmont, Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad (New York: Viking, 2022), 299.
Jason Dawsey, PhD
Jason Dawsey, PhD, is a Research Historian at the Jenny Craig Institute for the Study of War and Democracy.