Barrier breaker: Anna Mae Robertson played key role in stabilizing soldiers' morale during WWII
Washington, July 1, 2022
La Risa Lynch - Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
That all changed this week.
The 98-year-old Milwaukee resident received several standing-room ovations during a ceremony to recognize her military service as part of the famed Six Triple Eight, the only predominantly Black female postal battalion to serve in the war.
“They broke barriers,” said Kenya Robertson, 47, of her grandmother and of the other women in the battalion. “It took about 70 or so years for the world to know the role of Anna Robertson and the women of Six Triple Eight played in War World II.”
That role was significant. The 855 women who made up the battalion played a vital part in boosting the morale of battle-weary soldiers fighting in Europe.
With the slogan of “No Mail, Low Morale,” the women, including Robertson, worked 24 hours a day processing an average of 195,000 pieces of mail in three eight-hour shifts.
The women processed more than 17 million pieces of mail in three months while stationed in England, breaking all Army records for sorting mail. The women repeated the feat in France, where they were sent to clear a similar backlog.
“They put forth the effort and said, ‘We are going to do what they think we can’t do,’” the younger Robertson said. “(It) doesn’t matter when or if anyone recognizes you. What matters is that you deliver your best as the women of Six Triple Eight did.”
Their accomplishments were finally recognized in March. President Joe Biden signed legislation to award the Congressional Gold Medal to members of the Women’s Army Corps’ 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, or the Six Triple Eight, as they are better known.
Though confined to a wheelchair, Anna Mae Robertson appreciated the adulation for her and her comrades. They did more than just break racial and gender barriers. They also exceeded the expectations of a military that often marginalized women’s abilities.
Nearly 100 well-wishers attended the ceremony Monday at the Milwaukee County War Memorial Center. Among those in attendance were Milwaukee Mayor Cavalier Johnson and former interim Mayor Marvin Pratt, a retired Army Reserve major.
The long road to recognition
Robertson was presented with a symbolic representation of the Congressional Gold Medal. A formal presentation of the medal at the White House will come at a later date. Robertson also was given a framed copy of the act signed by Biden.
She also received a coin embossed with an image of the Six Triple Eight standing at attention. U.S. Rep. Gwen Moore, who introduced the legislation to award the battalion the medal, sent greetings via video.
The recognition is a long time coming for these women, said Edna W. Cummings, a retired Army colonel. She and Moore worked together with others to secure the medal for the women. Cummings now is working with the U.S. Mint to design the medal. The process can take 12 to 18 months.
“That is why we are having this event because we don’t want to wait,” Cummings said. “There are only six known living Six Triple Eight veterans ages 98 to 102. Time is of the essence because of their ages and health. I think it’s (fitting) to honor them while they are aware of the public appreciation and gratitude.”
“I felt disappointed because I’ve read about Black men who served during War World II, but nothing about Black women,” Cummings said.
Nearly 7,000 women served during the war, including Black nurses and nearly 600,000 Black Rosie the Riveters. Since then, Cummings made it a mission to not only honor these women but to also educate the public about their accomplishments.
“Since the Revolutionary War, Black women have been patriots, serving the country in some capacity,” she said. “The story of Black women has not been at the forefront, have not been part of the historical narrative. This is an opportunity to bring their story to light and to know their service matters.”
The Congressional Gold Medal is among the many accolades the battalion has received.
In 2018, a monument was erected in their honor at the Buffalo Soldiers Monument Park at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. The monument lists the names of 500 battalion members and includes a 25-inch bronze bust of its leader, Lt. Col. Charity Adams.
Black excellence in the military
The battalion was also featured in a 2019 documentary, “The SixTripleEight,” directed and produced by Wisconsin native, James Theres. The women will also be the subject of an upcoming play called 6888 The Musical, produced by actor Blair Underwood.
Philpot was instrumental in the effort to create the monument, which is among six others honoring military contributions by African Americans. It is important, he added, for these women's achievements to be made visible.
“Too often when it comes to Black history the ink of writers and historians is invisible,” Philpot said.
Denise Muhammad was overwhelmed by all the accolades her mom received. For her and her seven siblings, Robertson has always been just mom. Muhammad now realizes her mom is more than that.
“Before she became a mom, she was this dynamic Black woman that was a trailblazer,” said Muhammad, who traveled to Milwaukee from her home in Atlanta for Monday’s celebration.
At 19, Robertson joined the Army in 1943 along with her brother after their mother died. Robertson’s decision to join went against norms for Black women of that era. Instead, Muhammad said their mother cut her own path in life.
“That takes a lot of courage,” she said. “When she did that it wasn’t because there was this big push or a movement saying, ‘We want more women to be in the military.’”
That left an indelible mark on the family, especially for Robertson’s seven daughters. Muhammad said her mother encouraged them to find their own path, relying on faith and inner strength.
The story of the Six Triple Eight is more than just about sorting mail for Tiffany Koehler, a 14-year U.S. Army veteran. The women of the Six Triple Eight fought on many fronts.
They had to battle racism, sexism and the Nazis. But their work and bravery are a testament to the military service of women, which often goes unrecognized, said Koehler, who spoke at the event.
When the women were called up for service, Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower described their duties as chauffeurs, secretaries and “companionship for the thousands of Negro troops” already overseas, Koehler said.
These women proved more than that. They went through boot camp and trained to jump over trenches, climb ropes, identify enemy aircraft, handle weapons and did long marches with rucksacks on their backs as well as any man, Koehler said.
“They trained just as hard, even harder because as a woman, we have to prove ourselves over and over again. People expect us to fail,” she said, noting that these women didn’t enlist, but volunteered to go off to war.
“We served because we wanted to be there,” Koehler said.