When the women of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion arrived in Birmingham, England, in February 1945, they faced a mammoth task: sorting through a multiyear backlog of mail that had yet to be delivered to U.S. soldiers, government personnel and Red Cross workers serving abroad.
At least six warehouses were stacked to the ceilings with letters and packages, according to the U.S. Department of Defense. Some had been mailed up to three years prior and remained undelivered. Care packages with spoiled holiday treats had attracted rats into the facilities, which were unheated and dark, their windows blacked out to avoid being targeted during nighttime air raids. And it was extremely challenging to track down the correct mail recipients. For example, more than 7,500 soldiers were named Robert Smith.
The U.S. Army estimated that it would take the battalion six months to get through the backlog. Yet, despite the difficult working conditions, the women flouted those expectations, sorting through all 17 million pieces of mail in just three months.
Margaret Glenn Sales Semmes, who studied music at Northwestern in the 1940s, was one of 856 women who served in the Women’s Army Corps’ 6888th Battalion, also known as the Six Triple Eight, the only U.S. Army unit comprising all women of color during World War II. While most were Black women, the unit also had a few members of Mexican and Puerto Rican descent.
The battalion’s motto became “No Mail, Low Morale.”
“We take communication with loved ones for granted today, even in war zones, because of the internet, Zoom, FaceTime and the like,” says Sales Semmes’ son, Clovis Semmes III ’71, ’78 PhD. “The importance of communication with loved ones and its impact on morale during World War II are often overlooked.”
After their initial success, the battalion deployed to Rouen, France, where they worked with French citizens and German prisoners of war to clear yet another backlog of mail in a similar timeframe.
“It was hard work,” says Semmes. “The speed and efficiency with which the 6888th was able to organize and move a backlog of millions of pieces of mail in such a short period of time is no less than phenomenal.”
Soon, the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion may become a household name. Acclaimed actor and director Tyler Perry will produce Six Triple Eight, a film about the 6888th starring Kerry Washington as Lt. Col. Charity Adams, forthcoming on Netflix. Tony Award nominee Blair Underwood will produce a musical about the battalion as well.
Born in Evanston, Sales Semmes grew up on Chicago’s South Side, where she was heavily involved in Cosmopolitan Community Church. A gifted musician, “she was one of the few people at the time who could play the huge pipe organ at Cosmopolitan,” says her son. But the church also gave her a sense of purpose. “The church community was primarily controlled by women,” Clovis Semmes says, noting that the innovative minister Mary G. Evans and prominent social activist and businesswoman Marjorie Joyner attended Cosmopolitan. “So you had a lot of strong, independent women around my mother, and I think she picked up a lot from that.”
Intending to become a concert pianist, Sales Semmes made the long commute from the South Side to Evanston to attend Northwestern. “If you were African American, you couldn’t live on campus at that time — that only opened up a few years before I came to Northwestern in the late 1960s,” says Semmes, professor emeritus of Africology and African American studies at Eastern Michigan University, who participated in the Bursar’s Office Takeover of 1968.
While she loved studying music, Sales Semmes left Northwestern after about a year to enlist in the Women’s Army Corps. She joined the military on her 20th birthday.
“I can’t say definitively” what motivated her to enlist, says Semmes. “But [the Cosmopolitan church] was very supportive of the civil rights movement. … [And] there was a feeling in the Black community that dealing with discrimination meant serving your country, and [my mother] was committed to that. Even though [she was] running toward a war, she saw it as an opportunity to advance Black people generally.”
Despite their impressive work, the women of the 6888th were met with overt racism, sexism and discrimination. The battalion was segregated from other U.S. Army units, denied entry to the Red Cross clubs in Europe and excluded from participating on the Army’s sports teams, among other injustices. When they returned to the U.S. in March 1946, they received the European African Middle Eastern Campaign Medal, the Women’s Army Corps Service Medal and the World War II Victory Medal. However, many felt the 6888th did not receive the wide recognition it deserved.
On March 14, 2022, with a handful of veterans of the battalion still alive, President Joe Biden signed into law a bill to award the 6888th a Congressional Gold Medal for their service. Though Sales Semmes died in April 11, 1999, Clovis Semmes and his family attended a celebration event for the 6888th at the Military Women’s Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va., on June 15, 2022.
Semmes says his mother spoke positively about her experience in the 6888th. “She got to travel. And after the conflict ended, she took classes at Trinity College of Music in London,” (now the Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance). In Europe, Margaret also met up with Clovis’ father, Clovis Eugene Semmes, who served in World War II as well. “They met at Cosmopolitan Community Church before the war,” Semmes says. “My father, who was stationed overseas, learned where my mother was stationed — it was close enough for him to visit. They were married in 1947. The marriage ended in 1965, however.”
When she returned to the States, Sales Semmes also taught at John Farren Elementary as a reading specialist for 29 years, the same school she attended as a child. Her sons (Clovis and his brother Emmanuel) also attended the school as children. Sales Semmes also had a daughter, Carol.
“I found out very early in life about her [service], but I didn’t know it was a unique thing [until much later],” says Semmes. “Once you understood the segregated nature of the military, how it was a struggle for women generally to move into that type of service, then I began to understand that this was a very big deal.
“In the minds of many Black people, you were fighting for freedom abroad and you were fighting for freedom at home,” he adds. “So your involvement in the military had that double significance. It was seen by many people as an honor and an opportunity, and certainly that’s how my mother saw it.”
Diana Babineau is a writer and editor for Northwestern Magazine, in Northwestern’s Office of Global Marketing and Communications.