Historian Kevin Hymel has written several articles on the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, the only all-female, all-black unit to serve overseas during World War II. Deloris Ruddock was one of the five surviving members of that battalion who attended the dedication of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion monument at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas in December 2018. Kevin, who also attended, had the pleasure of speaking with her about her WWII experiences.
Today, we share Kevin’s latest article about this remarkable woman and unit that was published in ARMY magazine in January 2021.
No Backlog Could Defeat This All-Black, All-Female Unit
By Kevin Hymel
Originally published in ARMY magazine, January 2021
On a cold November morning in 2018, crowds of people lined a road at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, cheering and waving small American flags. A parade of cars, led by police and motorcycle escorts, slowly rolled by. Inside the cars were five special guests, smiling and returning the waves. All five were African American women in their 90s who had come to witness the dedication of a monument to their service and a parade seven decades late. All had been members of a unique Army unit, one that had changed the face of the U.S. Army in the waning days of World War II.
The women of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion snapped the stereotype that Black women would not serve their country during a global crisis. While their job did not carry much glory—they sorted letters so the letters could find their recipients—these women were pioneers, helping chart the path for future generations and making the Army the diverse reflection of America it is today.
One of those women was Deloris Ruddock, now 97, a native of Washington, D.C. Ruddock was a high school student at Cardozo Business School when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941.
“I was too young to have a reaction,” she said about learning of the attack that brought the U.S. into World War II.
After her high school graduation, someone recommended she join the Army. Before World War II, Black women were not allowed into the military, but the war brought change. Her father had been deferred from serving, but when she asked about joining, he agreed.
Army Journey Begins
In October 1943, 9-year-old Ruddock took a bus to the newly built Pentagon, where she was sworn into the Army. Next, she traveled to Fort Des Moines, Iowa, for boot camp. The Army sup- plied her with a spring uniform, about the same size as everyone else’s, with one exception. “The only thing you could pick out was a pair of shoes,” she said.
Ruddock marched, stood guard duty, washed dishes and cleaned latrines. “I went through what I was supposed to,” she said about the training. Surprisingly, cleaning latrines was not her most despised chore. “I hated marching,” she said. But she did not mind the Army meals. “They fed us, and we ate it,” she said. “It was OK.” After six months of training, she graduated as a private first class in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC).
Ruddock first served at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, as a warehouse clerk, where she controlled the books and checked orders for food and uniforms. While other Black WACs worked in the area, Ruddock was the only Black woman in the warehouse. People often reminded her of the distinction. Once, a group of white soldiers spotted her and some other Black WACs and made their way over. “They were so shocked and surprised when they realized we were Black women,” she said.
Ruddock soon learned that segregation was not confined to the South. When she went into a downtown store to buy a pair of Oxford shoes, she walked into the shoe department, sat down and waited … and waited. Salespeople passed by, ignoring her. Finally, a saleswoman asked if she could help her. When Ruddock explained she wanted to buy some shoes, the woman told her, “You’re sitting in the wrong area,” and escorted her to the back of the store, where Blacks could make purchases.
But the nastiest slights came from a white male lieutenant in charge of the warehouse. He refused to speak to her except to give specific orders. At meetings, he sat on Ruddock’s desk, his back to her, while he held court. She hated the treatment. When she learned that Black women were needed for overseas duty, she signed up immediately. “I just wanted to get the heck out of that office,” she said.
When the lieutenant learned of her imminent departure, he asked his superior officer if he could deny the transfer. “He had the audacity to ask that!” she recalled, still shocked by his behavior after 74 years. The officer asked her if she wanted to stay. She replied, “Oooh no.”
Ruddock transferred to Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia, where she joined an all-Black, all-female WAC unit training to head overseas, not yet designated the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion. She returned to the world of drilling, training and chores. She also returned to her most despised Army ritual. “The one thing I didn’t like was marching in different parades,” she said. “I’d rather wash dishes.”
En Route to England
Once all the women were screened and trained for overseas duty, they boarded trains bound for New York City for the first leg of their journey. From there, they boarded the SS Ile de France, a converted French luxury liner, and on Feb. 3, 1945, began the trip across the Atlantic.
Early on, Ruddock succumbed to seasickness as the ship zigzagged to avoid German U-boats. But she eventually recovered enough to get up, eat and play cards with her comrades. One day, Ruddock was in her below-deck bunk when she felt the ship speeding up. The captain had accelerated to outdistance a German U-boat. “Nobody talked about it,” she said. No one wanted to discuss the possibility of dying at sea.
The ship docked in Glasgow, Scotland, on Feb. 12, where the women boarded a train to Birmingham, England. Two days later, they set up barracks in the former King Edward’s School and slept in bunk beds in the classrooms. “We had showers, basins and latrines,” Ruddock said. “We were well protected.” They spent part of their day preparing their new home for inspections. “We were in the Army, and we had to keep our places clean,” she said.
Tackling Their Task
The women were then trained for their new trade: sorting and organizing mail. On March 12, a month after their arrival, they officially became the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, under the command of Maj. Charity Adams. Several large warehouses, packed floor to ceiling with mail and packages, awaited them. The mail had been returned after the Army could not find the intended recipients. The women would have to locate the soldiers and determine who had been killed, returning those letters to their senders. The women had six months to clear the backlog.
They got to work, sorting, organizing and figuring out the destination for letters and packages. The 6888th, consisting of five companies, A, B, C, D and headquarters, worked around-the-clock and on weekends to meet their deadline. Each company worked three eight-hour shifts. Ruddock kept pace with the intense work. “I wasn’t overwhelmed,” she said. “When you’re young, you follow the flow.”
Ruddock befriended some of her fellow WACs, but said in wartime, “you’re friends with everybody.” A local couple opened their home to the women, inviting them over for Sunday dinners. “One of them was actually an American who [had] moved to England and married,” Ruddock said. As a member of a Family Baptist Church, she attended service every Sunday. For solace, she carried a cross and said the Lord’s Prayer.
Breaking It Down
As the days passed, the stacks of mail shrank as letters found their recipients, damaged packages were repaired and sent on their way, and other letters were returned to senders. “We broke it down,” Ruddock said. “Our job was to do the mail, and we did it.”
They did their job so well that they completed their six-month task in only three months. “We did it in such a quick time,” Ruddock said, “because we kept at the job.” They finished in May, just as the war ended.
Despite the Allied victory, American soldiers still needed their mail. The 6888th was soon transferred to France, arriving in Le Havre on their way to the city of Rouen, where they would break another logjam of letters and packages. Again, the 6888th was given six months to complete their mission. Again, they completed it in three.
With their mission complete, the women began heading back to the U.S. What was left of the unit moved to Paris to await their journey home. While there, the unit participated in victory celebrations. Unfortunately for Ruddock, it meant more marching.
Ruddock soon boarded the RMS Queen Mary for the voyage home. This time, the liner made no zigzags on the open seas. “It sure was different from going,” she said. After arriving in New York City, Ruddock traveled to Fort Dix, New Jersey, where she was officially separated from the Army on March 16, 1946. She then boarded a train back to Washington, where she reunited with her family. “Everybody was crazy,” she said about the reunion. “They were happy that I was home.”
A year later, Ruddock began attending Traphagen School of Fashion in New York City on the GI Bill. “It was unbelievable,” she recalled. “I got to go to the school I wanted to go to.” Upon graduation, she got a job at National City Bank of New York (today’s Citi- bank). Over 27 years, she worked her way up from storage clerk to platform officer. She eventually retired and took a part-time job at a department store outside Washington.
In retirement, Ruddock had almost forgotten about her long-ago Army service when, in 2017, retired Navy Cmdr. Carlton Philpot, a member of the Buffalo Soldier Committee at Fort Leavenworth, told her about a 6888th monument being built at the installation. “You’ve got to be kidding me!” a stunned Ruddock told Philpot.
Philpot put her in touch with retired Master Sgt. Elizabeth Helm-Frazier, who works for the Department of Veterans Affairs. Helm-Frazier escorted Ruddock to Kansas to enjoy the parade and the dedication of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion Monument. “I wouldn’t be sitting here talking about my service if it wasn’t for this lady,” Ruddock said of Helm-Frazier.
Ruddock enjoyed the honors and attention showered on her at Fort Leavenworth and the cheering crowds at the parade. “I have never even contemplated such a thing could happen,” she said. “It’s like something from the past.”
About Historian Kevin Hymel
Kevin Hymel is a historian for the U.S. Army in Arlington, Virginia, and is the author of Patton’s Photographs: War as He Saw It. He is also a historian/tour guide for Stephen Ambrose Historical Tours. He was ARMY magazine’s associate editor from 2001–07.