6888th Battalion sheroes fought sexism, racism and Nazism
There are countless stories of duty and honor to share this Veterans Day, but one is nearly 80 years in the making. It's the story of Pvt. Indiana Hunt Martin of Buffalo, who died at age 98 as the nation was just beginning to recognize her distinctive military service during World War II.
"Some of our veterans don't think that their stories are worth telling, but yes they are. Everybody has a job to do. And when you do that collectively, that's what makes a mighty force."
Janice Martin remembers her mother always having a small canvas pouch with a red crocheted string pinned to the inside her bra.
"It had a credit card, a $100 bill, a pocket knife, a debit card and an ID card," Martin said.
A supply of those pouches were issued to Indiana by the U.S. Army in 1944 and were used until her last day.
"The day I sent her out to the emergency room — the day she passed — I said, 'Mom, you don't need that. It's COVID. I can't go with you. They're only gonna take it off and it's gonna get lost,'" Martin remembered. "She snatched it from me. She said, 'You know I don't leave this house without it.' She was furious with me for not letting her hook up her little to-do."
Martin smiled and brushed back the tears in her eyes thinking what that nearly 80-year-old, seemingly insignificant at the time, government-issued item now represents. It means so much to her, she buried one with Indiana's ashes in May.
Martin is now sorting through the rest of her mother's belongings, deciding what to save and what to donate to military archives — like her medals, which took seven decades to receive.
"Back in about 2014, she sent the letter to Congressman Higgins," Martin recalled. "She had written this letter because she said that she thought she was supposed to have received some metals along the way. She didn't understand why she hadn't received any metals. And he made it happen."
Those medals included the Army Good Conduct Medal, the Women's Army Corps Service Metal Ribbon, the European African Middle Eastern Campaign Military Ribbon and the World War II Victory Medal.
The military has often failed to recognize the service of African Americans, but until recently, Indiana's service was even lesser known. At age 22, she unknowingly became a member of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, the only battalion of U.S. African American servicewomen to serve overseas.
"When they arrived off the ship, they didn't even know what their job was," Martin said. "It was top secret."
"The 6888th Postal Battalion had one mission, which was to go to Europe and to try and solve this incredible year long backlog of mail," said Shane Stephenson, director of Museum Collections at the Buffalo & Erie County Naval & Military Park.
Stephenson said the chaos of war had left several airplane hangars full of undelivered letters and packages to U.S. servicemembers sitting in Birmingham, England. Others had attempted to solve the logistical nightmare and failed.
"The warehouses weren't heated," he said. "There was a lot of infestation because there was, you know, cookies and breads and things like that that were in the mail attracted a lot of rodents. And the unstandardized practice of how people filled out envelopes. They would just put 'Robert Smith,' right? These women had to figure out which Robert Smith this was going to."
"They worked all three shifts," Martin said. "And don't forget, they also had to censor the mail. So somebody had to read all that mail and blackout what wasn't supposed to go whichever direction it wasn't supposed to go. And in the process, put it in alphabetical order. Each one of them had an alphabet that they were in charge of."
The new process created by the Six Triple Eight to index and locate the 7 million U.S. servicemembers of the European Theater allowed the battalion to complete its mission faster than expected. It was then assigned to France to clear the stockpiles of undelivered mail there.
Remember the military was still segregated at the time. Of the 12 million Americans who served during World War II, only about 900,000 were African American and 6,500 were African American women.
"Their ability to work through the racism and sexism that they experienced paved the way for everyone else," Stephenson said. "Anyone who's in the military now is standing on the shoulders of the women of the Six Triple Eight."
Among them is Debbera Ransom, commander and founder of the Johnetta R. Cole AMVETS Post in Buffalo, who said she experienced racism and sexism as an Army military policewoman in the late 1970s. She got to know Indiana during visits to the VA Medical Center.
"These women were not just ladies, they were soldiers. They served the country and they expected to be treated with honor and dignity and respect. And that's not always what happened," Ransom said. "So that's where I start thinking, 'Wow, in spite of it all, in spite of it all, they continue to march forward as true, true brave heroes and sheroes.'"
Indiana is a memory, but Ransom is among those now working to rename Buffalo's Central Park post office in Indiana's name. The Naval & Military Park is planning to honor the Six Triple Eight in its new exhibit of African American service during World War II opening in July. Perhaps most eagerly awaited is a bill nearing approval to award a Congressional Gold Medal to the 855 members of the battalion and its six surviving women.
"There are so many times when African American soldiers have done wonderful brave things, but it takes forever for them to get recognized. Many times, the honors that they eventually received — if they even do — is way after they have passed," Ransom said. "And so as we do these different efforts, at least family members will be able to enjoy knowing that their loved ones have been honored."
"It was interesting reading some of her letters to my Dad. It was just reading a different side of her, which I found really fascinating to know that. I'm just so proud to know that she was one of the ladies that went over," Janice said. "They were women who had a mission and they did it very well. They didn't play around. They were very serious. They were very dedicated. They felt that this was their country and they wanted to make sure that the reputation they left behind was an honorable one. And I think they did. And I'm just happy that people are finally recognizing them for it."