PORTSMOUTH, Va. — Leaves crunched beneath Anita Fletcher's feet as she walked through the Albert G. Horton Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Suffolk during a chilly January morning. This is where Fletcher likes to visit her mother, Audrey Whitney, from time to time.
Fletcher lived in Portsmouth with Whitney for the latter half of her mother's life. When Alzheimer's Disease took over Whitney's memory, it was up to Fletcher to remember them for her... including her time during World War II.
At the cemetery, Whitney is buried along with a sea of other veterans with their own war stories to tell. Standing at her grave with a vase full of lilies -- Whitney’s favorite flowers -- Fletcher tells her mother various stories, but one story that keeps coming up is the Army Corps unit Whitney used to serve in during World War II.
Whitney served as a Private First-Class Officer in the now historic WWII 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion.
This Army unit consisted of 855 Black women who were tasked with clearing more than 17 million pieces of backlogged mail within three months in England. This doesn't count in all the other pieces of mail they worked through in other parts of Europe.
The 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, which the people called the "Six-Triple-Eight," is responsible for single-handedly getting important pieces of communication to government officials, troops, and their families.
However, these women experienced an entirely different journey as they made their way to Europe on a rocky boat and spent months organizing the millions of pieces of mail. All 855 women were segregated from other troops. They were also forced to work, eat, and sleep in unhealthy conditions.
Then, when they came home to the United States after fulfilling their duties, there was no confetti, no parade honoring them.
But their contributions were recognized decades later, after advocates pushed to build a memorial for these women in Buffalo, NY.
That’s when Fletcher, who lives in Portsmouth, says she started learning more about her mother.
“She had Alzheimer’s,” said Fletcher. “So, when I brought out a newspaper article about these women, I asked my mom about it and she started telling me stories about all the women she knew in this unit. I knew she wasn’t making it up because she didn’t see the paper that day yet.”
The epiphany sparked a passion within Fletcher to learn more about her mother’s background.
“I get bored quickly,” Fletcher laughed. “So, when I don’t make a lot of progress in research, I just move on... but I found out so much more after my mom had passed.”
In 2019, the Senate passed a bill calling for more recognition by honoring the 855 women with the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal. It now waits on official approval from the House of Representatives. This comes shortly after Whitney passed away in 2017.
Fletcher said she doesn’t want her mother’s own story to stay buried in the Suffolk cemetery, she wants the world to know and to recognize the women’s hard work.
“I’ve asked so many individuals, even people in the military, 'Have you ever heard of the Six-Triple-Eight?' They say, 'Never heard about it.' But it means a lot to me,” said Fletcher. “You could tell they were strong will and they were there for business. The officers knew what they needed to have done.”
Fletcher found herself becoming a big part of this effort to get these women the Congressional Gold Medal.
“This is not just for my mom, but for every other, even the ones who are not here anymore. I’m advocating for them because this is something that’s very deserving,” said Fletcher. “It means a lot to me to do something that’s positive because it gives people hope. It’s something to hold onto because legacy is so important.”
There are recent developments in the fight to get these women the rightful recognition decades in the making.
In the first week of February, advocates for the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion said the bill received all of its co-sponsors from various states in order for the bill to be sent to President Joe Biden’s desk.
Even when the women receive the medal and the nation marks them as WWII pioneers, Fletcher said she’ll always remember her mom as so much more.
Out of the 855 women, only six are still believed to be alive to receive the medal in person. The rest would receive the medal posthumously through their family members. The bill received two-thirds of the necessary co-sponsors. It is now expected to head to the House of Representatives for a vote.
If it passes through the final voting stages between the Senate and the House over the next month, that is when it is expected to hit President Biden’s desk. His signature will determine if these women will one day receive the medals.