Black History: The women of the Central Postal battalion
Published 11:25 am Wednesday, February 22, 2023
By Gene Hays
Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series about the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion – the first battalion of African American women ever to serve in the U.S. military overseas.
When Romay Johnson Davis was in her 20s, she decided to do something millions of young men across the country were doing: enlist in World War II. All five of her brothers had already joined up.
“They were being pulled away one by one, and I had no playmates,” Davis recalls.
Most young women were staying in the United States and helping out on the home front. Even the iconic Rosie the Riveter was urging women to work in factories, not ship out overseas.
But Davis’ parents supported their only daughter’s decision.
“My father was skeptical sometimes about my going off. But Mama said, ‘Child, see the world while you can.’”
That’s how Davis found herself on the Île de France in February 1945, en route to Glasgow, Scotland.
Among the passengers on board were more than 800 recruits from her unit – women mostly in their late teens and 20s, and, in the segregated Army of the era, all of them Black. They would be doing something crucial to the war effort: clearing a massive backlog of undelivered mail.
For two years or longer, soldiers had been waiting for letters and packages that still hadn’t arrived. Morale was flagging, and no one had been able to process the millions of individual pieces of mail piled up in European warehouses from floor to ceiling.
During their ocean crossing, the ship suddenly lurched. Barrels rolled, and young women screamed.
Later, the group would learn that their captain had swerved to dodge an attack by a German U-boat. But at the height of the pandemonium, with heavy furniture sliding across the floor, all Davis knew was that there was no use panicking.
She scolded her crying companions. “You can’t get off the ship,” she said. “You have to train yourself not to be so frightened that you can’t enjoy it.”
At 103 years old, Davis is the oldest surviving member of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion – the first battalion of African American women ever to serve in the U.S. military overseas.
She can tell stories of working long shifts in rat-infested warehouses in England and France, of chauffeuring military personnel around Europe during the deadliest conflict in human history. But when she looks back at the U-boat incident, her voice brims with amusement and pride.
“I asked the girls, I said, ‘Now what’s the point of being afraid right now? You can’t do one earthly thing but pray,’” she says with a chuckle. “I guess I was the brave one.”
Romay Johnson Davis had hoped to become a doctor, but only a few elite universities for African Americans offered medical degrees, making those spots highly competitive. Her military record didn’t make any difference.
“At that time,” Davis recalls wryly, “Black people weren’t joyously invited to do anything.” Instead of medicine, Davis studied fashion design and made clothing for a living.
She also traveled widely, including two trips to Africa. “I got lost two or three times traveling while I was in a foreign country on the street by myself,” she says. “Not safe, not a wise thing to do, but I couldn’t resist it.”
When she was in her 70s, Davis joined a friend’s young son at taekwondo classes and went on to earn a black belt. Her adventures in the Six Triple Eight shaped the course of her life, showing her from an early age, as she now puts it, that “the world is big and wide.”
Gene Hays is a retired Marine, Author and Historian, with books available at Amazon.com.