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A history of hard jobs

As lawmakers hear from United States Postal Service officials about the still-unresolved problems that continue to cause delays and backlogs, I wonder if any of them knows the story of the Women’s Army Corps’ 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion. Those women could teach us a thing or two about getting a job done right — and tossing aside bureaucratic expectations in favor of effectiveness.

In 1945, the all-Black 6888th was sent to Birmingham, England, to clear what they were told was a six-month backlog of mail and packages. While trying to raise morale by reconnecting folks to those who were sending them mail, this group of Black women was also entirely segregated. Given the Army’s rules at the time, it was up to them to run their own facilities.

As the first and only all-female Black battalion to be deployed overseas during World War II, they had an enormous task on their hands. And so, under the leadership of Lt. Col. Charity Adams Earley, they got to work.

They developed their own sorting methods and tracking system for the mail. Because they were working in a building with blacked-out windows and no heat, they adapted to the dim lighting and freezing conditions … and finished the task in three months.

“The women divided into three eight-hour shifts and worked seven days a week to sort and redirect an average of 65,000 pieces of mail per day, totaling nearly 7 million pieces in Birmingham alone,” Army University Press reported. “The mail clerks used special locator cards that contained soldiers’ names, unit numbers, and serial numbers to help ensure proper delivery; they also had the duty of returning mail addressed to those service members who had died. The women developed the motto ‘No mail, low morale,’ as they were providing the support of linking service members with their loved ones back home.”

In fact, they did the work so well, they were then sent to Rouen, France, to clear what they were told was up to three years of backed up mail. Having a system in place by that point, they finished that task in six months, too. Anyone who has had to swoop in and handle a task others have been unable to conquer knows it can be difficult, but is extremely satisfying.

Disbanded in 1946, the group went home to no fanfare or parades. Their work was done, and that was the end of it, as far as the Army was concerned. Now, 75 years have passed. Only seven of the original 855 members of the battalion are still alive. And the U.S. Senate has finally seen fit to pass legislation that grants these women the Congressional Gold Medal, Congress’s highest expression of national appreciation for distinguished achievements and contributions by individuals or institutions.

Better late than never, I suppose.

“It’s wonderful, and it’s time,” Stanley Earley III, son the late Lt. Col. Earley, told CNN. “It should have happened 50, 60 years ago. But there is now the opportunity for a recognition that these folks did all these things that were so important.”

It’s one example of the many pieces of our history we have ignored for decades (or centuries), and therefore failed to learn from them, when those lessons could help us even now.

The 6888th should be recognized, not only for the struggles they overcame (which most today simply cannot fathom) and their successes, but for accomplishing something the modern-day USPS apparently can’t. Now that we have honored them, perhaps the USPS will take a page out of their book and get the job done.

Christina Myer is executive editor of The Parkersburg News and Sentinel. She can be reached via e-mail at cmyer@newsandsentinel.com

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