On February 14, 1945, after crossing the Atlantic Ocean and surviving a run-in with a Nazi U-Boat, the women of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion disembarked the Île-de-France in Glasgow, Scotland.
The task awaiting the only all-Black, all-female battalion overseas during World War II was daunting. There were airplane hangars filled with a backlog of millions of pieces of mail sitting in Birmingham, England, addressed from friends and family to service members stationed across Europe.
Despite segregation and poor working and living conditions, the Six Triple Eight made quick work of the postal backlog, doing their part to lift morale among the American military personnel stationed in Europe.
To learn more about the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, I’m joined now by writer Kaia Alderson, author of Sisters in Arms: A Novel of the Daring Black Women Who Served During World War II.
Our theme song is Frogs Legs Rag, composed by James Scott and performed by Kevin MacLeod, licensed under Creative Commons. The episode image is “Inspection of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion,” Courtesy of the U.S. Army.
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Kelly Therese Pollock 0:00
This is Unsung History, the podcast where we discuss people and events in American history that haven't always received a lot of attention. I'm your host, Kelly Therese Pollock. I'll start each episode with a brief introduction to the topic, and then talk to someone who knows a lot more than I do. Be sure to subscribe to Unsung History on your favorite podcasting app, so you never miss an episode. And please tell your friends, family, neighbors, colleagues, maybe even strangers to listen too.
Today, we're discussing the Six Triple Eight Central Postal Directory Battalion. After the United States entered World War II, Congress passed a bill originally introduced by Representative Edith Nourse Rogers of Massachusetts to create the Women's Auxilary Army Corps. HR 6293 was signed into law on May 15, 1942, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt set a recruitment goal of 25,000 women for the first year. That goal was exceeded. Women recruits had to be between 21 and 45 years old, and they needed strong aptitude scores, experience, and good references to qualify. On July 20, 1942, the first group of 800 women began their basic training at Fort Des Moines Provisional Army Officer Training School in Iowa. Although the women were not trained to handle weapons, they were expected to be physically fit. A War Department training manual from 1943 told women recruits, "Your job: to replace men. Be ready to take over." To free up men to fight, women were trained to be switchboard operators, mechanics, bakers, drivers, postal clerks and stenographers. Some women even worked as armorers, maintaining and repairing weapons that they were not allowed to use. Women in the Women's Auxilary Army Corps were not given military status. In exchange for their service, they would receive pay, food, living quarters, and medical care; but they were not given life insurance or death benefits. Most women in the WAAC served within the United States, but some were sent around the world, including to Europe, North Africa and New Guinea. The NAACP had been arguing for integrating the military for many years. The Army made the argument that it could not make such a major change in the midst of war. But they did agree that around 10% of WAAC officers and enlisted women would be Black to match the approximate percentage of the US population that was Black at the time. Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, who was the founder of the National Council for Negro Women, and a friend of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, worked alongside the NAACP to recruit Black women to the WAAC. Since the army was not yet integrated, the service women had segregated housing and segregated basic training at the start. But Black women were welcomed into the first officer training program, and they were trained in the same specializations as white women. Civil Rights leaders, including Dr. Bethune, protested the segregation, which resulted in the first integration within the Army, at the officer candidate school. Bethune kept an eye on the women's training centers, reporting back on conditions to Walter White, the Executive Secretary of the NAACP, and to Eleanor Roosevelt. When women graduated from basic training, they were supposed to receive assignments immediately. But many posts and their commanding officers didn't want to take Black women into their ranks, which in turn affected recruitment into the Women's Auxilary Army Corps. In part to boost recruitment, FDR signed legislation in July, 1943 to turn the Women's Auxilary Army Corps into the Women's Army Corps, which gave the women military status and rank. In 1945, Black women in the Women's Army Corps finally had the chance to serve overseas. A battalion of 824 enlisted women and 31 officers drawn from the Women's Army Corps, the Army Service Forces and the Army Air Forces was designated the 6888 Central Postal Directory Battalion or Six Triple Eight for short, under the command of Major Charity Adams. Major Adams had been in the initial class of women training in Iowa in 1942, and was later the training supervisor at base headquarters. By the end of the war, she would be the highest ranking African American woman in the military.
After training for their overseas mission at Fort Oglethorpe in Georgia, the women traveled by train to the embarkation point at Camp Shanks, New York. They departed on February 3, 1945, on the Ile de France, and after surviving a run-in with a Nazi u-boat. They arrived in Glasgow, Scotland, on February 14, where they were greeted by an exploding German V1 rocket near the dock. From there, they made their way to their destination in Birmingham, England. The task awaiting them was daunting. There were airplane hangars filled with millions of pieces of mail sitting in Birmingham, addressed from friends and family to service members stationed across Europe. With 7 million Americans stationed in Europe, constantly on the move, and many sharing names like the 7500 Robert Smith's, even well addressed mail was difficult to route correctly, made even more difficult by letters and packages addressed to "John, US Army," or the like. The women of the Six Triple Eight got to work in three separate eight hour shifts in the unheated and dimly lit hangars, sorting out the mail from the rats, and investigating the mail with insufficient addresses to find the proper recipients. Unwelcome in clubs for white service members, the women of the Six Triple Eight ran their own mess hall, refreshment bar, recreation facilities, and even their own hair salon. In spite of poor treatment and substandard facilities, the women of the Six Triple Eight got the job done, clearing a six month backlog of mail in just three months, as they processed an average of 65,000 pieces of mail per shift. Their motto was "No Mail, Low Morale," and they did their part to increase the morale of all the American servicemembers in Europe. Once they cleared the backlog in Birmingham, they moved on to France, where they faced a similar task. They arrived in France shortly after VE Day, and they participated in a victory parade in Rouen. The backlog of mail there went back two to three years, but the Six Triple Eight again cleared it efficiently. While there, they were also able to participate in recreational activities, like tennis and ping pong, and their basketball team won a tournament in Stuttgart, Germany. Once the mail in Rouen was cleared, their final European destination was Paris, where they enjoyed the living conditions, but where there were fewer women to handle the workload, as the battalion was reduced by nearly 300 personnel. Finally, in February, 1946, the remainder of the Six Triple Eight returned to the US and was disbanded at Fort Dix, New Jersey, without any ceremony or official recognition of their hard work. It wasn't until recently that the Six Triple Eight were finally recognized, including induction into the US Army Women's Foundation Hall of Fame in 2016, and a monument dedicated to them at Fort Leavenworth in 2018. The armed forces were desegregated in 1948 by President Harry Truman. Around the same time, Congress passed the Women's Armed Service Integration Act, which made the Women's Army Corps a permanent part of the military. For more on that later history, please see our previous episode titled "Women in the US Military During the Cold War" with Dr. Tanya Roth. To learn more about the Six Triple Eight Central Postal Directory Battalion, I'm joined now by writer Kaia Alderson, author of "Sisters in Arms: a Novel of the Daring Black Women Who Served During World War II." Welcome Kaia. Thanks so much for speaking with me today.
Kaia Alderson 10:00
Thank you for having me.
Kelly Therese Pollock 10:01
Yeah, I am so excited to have learned about this story, to have read your novel, which I loved, I've read it twice now, and to be talking with you about this. I would love to talk a little bit about just how you got interested in this story and about writing a novel about the Six Triple Eight.
Kaia Alderson 10:20
Sure, it all started with the picture I saw on my Twitter timeline. I'd always been a bit of a history geek, knew about World War II. I had known about the Women's Army Corps, but a picture of the Six Triple Eight showed up on my timeline. And I it was my first time seeing Black women in uniform in Europe during World War II. And I was like, "Whoa, what is that?" I very quickly did a Google search, found out who they were, what they did, what was going on, and I was like, "Oh, I need to write 'soldier girl's last night in town before she goes, ships off to war' story." So it was originally supposed to be a historical romance novella that you know, I'd put up self published and maybe five people would buy and it turned into something else. Yeah. My editor actually, um, post, my now editor posted the same picture about a year or two later. "So somebody write me this book." I'm like, "Already working on it."
Kelly Therese Pollock 11:13
I love it. That is excellent. So can we talk some about the type of research that you do? So of course, this is a novel, it's it's fiction, but it's, you know, very clearly based in a lot of research into the time period into what these women were going through. So can you talk some about your process of doing that?
Kaia Alderson 11:35
Sure. My initial research was our friend Google and just putting in "World War II, Black women soldiers, and the Six Triple Eight." If you do that Google search even now, that's gonna be the first thing that pops up. And so I learned about their journey and then went on, I think Amazon and found the initial books. Charity Adams Earley, who's the commanding officer of the unit, she has her memoir out. And then "To Serve My Country, to Serve My Race" by Brenda L. Moore, which reads a little bit more academic, but it's the interesting academic. So back when more of those women were alive, they used to have interviews, like every two years, and so they would, she would go to the those reunions, and interview them and talk to them. So there's a lot of different information there about who they were, what they were doing before the war, why they joined, what their parents did, things like that. So I could kind of help cobble me together, and also had a list of the names of all the known people who were part of the unit that went over to Europe. So it helped me in terms of picking names and making sure I wasn't picking anything that was too modern that fit the time period. Once the book deal happened, I was like, "Oh, this is for real, and not just casual research." I did go to Iowa, to Fort Des Moines, and there's a museum there. So I was in the buildings that they would have been in. They had this beautiful display, so it showed basically every piece of uniform clothing material that would have been issued to them. What else was there, we were able to go down in the archives because that museum was closed even before COVID. We had to make special arrangements to go in so we could see what their foot lockers were, like. I took a picture, so I had my notebook comparative to what that would have looked like, the mess kits they would have received. One really cool thing is he was like, "Oh, let's look in the paper files," and found a menu. So I got a sense of what they're eating. So I kind of worked that into the book. Then I went to New York, I spent a day walking around Harlem. I grew up in New Jersey, but I hadn't been there like 20 years. So just to get the feel of Harlem and Harlem the layout of things. Then I went to upstate New York, about 45 minutes north of the city where Camp Shanks was, which is where they were stationed before they shipped out. So I can still have "soldier girls last night in town," but get a better feel for that. So the research librarian there was awesome. She had the original copies of the base newspaper, so I was able to, she pulled the ones two weeks before they were there, two weeks after. So I have a sense of what was going on. The pie shop had just opened, the entertainment that was coming through town, the bus schedules, the train schedules, everything. So I was able to kind of piece that experience together as well. Did not get to go to Europe. But I did find a Black female historian who was a bigger World War II geek than me that had not only lived in England, but is married to a Brit, had been in Birmingham, and was very familiar with, you know, she was looking up like when the sun would have set when it would have sunrise, temperatures, things like that. She checked me on like the one scene that was there. I said meat pies. And it was no they would have said pat, pasties and things like that. So that was very helpful. And we get our first conversation was, so funny. We just geeked out like "did you read this? Do you know this" type thing? So I love her.
Kelly Therese Pollock 14:47
That's incredible. And it comes through so clearly. You know, you sort of sense like you feel like you're really there. And I've mentioned this on this podcast before but we should have movie producers listening!
Kaia Alderson 15:01
Call my people, my people being my literary agent.
Kelly Therese Pollock 15:05
I wanted to ask, you know, a lot of those sort of stories and things, you know, mostly just little like snippets, encyclopedia articles, or whatever about the Six, Triple Eight often start with them going to Europe; but you start long before they go to Europe, and tell the story not just of what happens there, but how these women got involved in joining the Women's Army Corps, you know, all of that. So I wanted to hear some about your thought process in telling that story, sort of from the very beginning of women even thinking about joining the army.
Kaia Alderson 15:40
Well, remember, the original version of what I was working on was just supposed to be focusing on that last night in New York. And when the book happened, it was gonna be women's fiction, I was like, as I was working on it, I was like, "Oh, wait, I need to go back in the past a little bit to explain this. "Oh wait, I need to go back in the past a little bit to explain this," or, or just to show why things were the way they were and why it was important or significant. So I basically, the gift of Charity Adams' memoir is she was in that first officers training class for the Women's Army Corps, so she talks about what that was like. Dovey Johnson Roundtree, she also has a memoir out where she kind of talks about it so I could play, you know, one person's memories against the other. So it was important to me just because they were the first and it, it kind of set the stage for everything about why certain people were able to go, why they didn't, there's only one unit to begin with, that was able of all Black females to go over. And they had very limited opportunities to do anything, even within the confines of the Army Corps, even within the homefront doing things. They were doing a lot of domestic work, you know, where you're trying to join the army to avoid doing domestic work, you're now doing domestic work without all the freedoms of having your time, your time being your time when you leave. They were working as orderlies and things like that. So I just wanted to kind of give that sense of you know, they were doing things and what that what life in the army look like, because obviously, going to Europe wasn't necessarily the norm.
Kelly Therese Pollock 17:12
Yeah, yeah. And of course, you know, the the going to Europe, it it sounds glamorous, but very little of being in the army, then or probably now is glamorous, in you know, you're sort of talking about that, that that you wanted to show what what they're, they're really experiencing. But but some of that, too, is experiencing, not just army life, but what life in, in the 40s would have been like for Black women in Iowa, in the south, in New York, in various places. So can you talk some about that? Like, what what is that time period like for African American women? And and how does that differ, you know, in in these different places, you know, in New York, in Iowa, in England, you know, the all those sort of things, different things that they were experiencing, and having to sort of figure out in their minds in going into different spaces what that meant?
Kaia Alderson 18:10
Well, part of it was that, even though they are, my main characters are from New York in the north, and it wasn't as severely segregated, there still was segregation to a point. I had to go dig up books, thankfully they existed, of Northern Jim Crow. So yes, they could have had free reign of going places within the city, but you wouldn't necessarily spend the night in a hotel downtown, or you may still have like, segregated seating in some theaters. Or, you know, people are going to look at you, you know, or even, which is so common to this day, Black men trying to hail a cab, it's not going to happen downtown. It might happen further up uptown. So I wanted to put that in there, or the assumption that, you know, if you were Black, then you were a domestic, you were a service worker, things like that, which I showed like in that scene with Grace when she goes to the enlistment office, and everybody assumes she either works there, or she's not trying to be an officer, things like that. And that came from actually a homework assignment from back in middle school where we were tasked with speaking to members of our family who were alive during the war and what they did. And in speaking to my, I call her my Aunt Carmen, she was really my grandmother's first cousin, but she told me how she had been a civilian clerk in Manhattan during the war. And I was like, "Wow, I didn't realize they let Black people do that then. And she said, the only reason she got that job is because her supervisor was amused by the fact that she was a colored girl with a college degree. So even and this was in New York, you know, but you also have to remember back then only about 4% of the entire population had college education at that point. And so it was even more rare to for Black people to have that experience and even more rare for Black women, because basically, the assumption is you would go graduate from high school and get married. So the other thing is like um, also in Iowa, and I don't know if I work that into the book or not, but even when they were on their on leave in the city, there was still segregation. They couldn't eat at the lunch counters. And there was still, the army was segregated. And it didn't matter where you were, north, south, east, or west. So then they had those experiences within it. There was a push to try to keep not just the women, but Black soldiers in general, if they could train in the north, they would keep them in the north, so you didn't have that tension between the locals and these northern born educated Blacks are like, "What's going on?" and "Why are you talking to me like that?" and "I'm not gonna step off the sidewalk" and things like that. And then you also had the issue of Black officers or Black female officers even more rare, and people would question that, or be offended by the idea of the requirement of you have to salute your officers and follow their commands. Well, when you're in the south, and you're Black and female, that's not going to go over too well.
Kelly Therese Pollock 20:53
Yeah, yeah. Gosh, no, it's, uh, I'm so glad that you worked all of that in because it's, it's eye opening in a way that, you know, obviously, I've read a lot of history and stuff, but but sort of seeing it through people's eyes as they experience it, which is what you can do in novel form, is, is really eye opening. And this really sort of you catch your breath sometimes, like, "That's terrible! How could it be like that?" But you know, of course, it was.
Kaia Alderson 21:19
And one of the interesting things is when I was writing it, initially, I was falling into the trap that we normally see within popular culture where all the racism has been, and it's all a bunch of, you know, yes, or sorry, sir type things. And that wasn't the case, when I went back to fact check myself, they fought back. It might not have been verbal or overt, but they found ingenious ways to say, "Okay, if you're gonna do this, to me, this is my response to that." So you see that in the book, it isn't necessarily a spoiler, but you have this situation where somebody questioned their legitimacy as Black female officers. And their response to that wasn't just their response, and then other people's response to it wasn't just to go with the, "We think is the norm of okay, then they need to be arrested," or things like that. It's like, "Okay, fine. You want to segregate me, I'm going to turn that into a positive," or even in the very real case of Charity Adams, where a white general questioned her on something that wasn't correct. And he tried to make it about race and tried to take on, threaten to take her unit away from her. And she said, "Over my dead body, sir." You now have a 26 ish Black woman telling a white general this in a warzone and got away with that is, you know, that actually happened. And, you know, no one talks about it, or we're starting to talk about it now. But there is something to be experiencing that level of discrimination. But it's something I wanted to show women of today, because we still experience similar type things. This is how you can fight back. These are some tools.
Kelly Therese Pollock 22:53
Yeah. So your main characters are fictionalized. But you're you're able to bring in a lot of real life people into this. So Charity, as you mentioned, and this general, who is real, but then even like Eleanor Roosevelt and Mary McLeod Bethune and, and these great real historic figures, and actually more than that, to not just the sort of main figures but some of the other people in the story as well. Can you talk some about that, about including people who are who are real people who really existed in the past, into a fiction story or a fictionalized version of what happened and, and what that that process is like about you know, sort of writing a fictional Mary McLeod Bethune, but in things that she would have really been doing and saying?
Kaia Alderson 23:44
And talking to people in that certain way I kind of, at least in that initial scene with Mary McLeod Bethune, I kind of incorporated the personalities and the way, like my elders function, my Black female, aunties and grandparents and their friends. That's how, you know I, I'm assuming they learned it from that particular generation. So that was fun putting that in and crafting and again, you said it was something they actually did. I probably when I went back to fact check and I like had to come up with the list of. "Okay, these are all the real people in the book," I almost felt like I went overboard because there's almost a full page of the table, double sided, of people I was able to get in. The fact that, I had to fact check just to make sure I wasn't making obvious, you know, liberties with actual history. So yes, Thurgood Marshall did live on Edgecombe Ave. in Harlem during that point in time. Yes. Earl Hines, the jazz musician was on tour and probably would have been in Des Moines, which was actually known as the Sin City of the Plains and it was a very big jazz hotspot who knew? It was equivalent to like a Kansas City or Chicago back then. Making sure there's one Easter egg no one has picked up on, but it was a jazz figure who was in New York for a very specific small period of time that happened to coincide with the book. So they're there, even though they're not named by name, because they weren't a name then, they're in the book. So it was a lot of fun. A lot of the side characters like that Eliza and Grace are working with side by side, those are the real first names of those women who were in that first training class, or that would have been there. The Eleanor Roosevelt incident did happen, not necessarily the way I depicted it, but someone was selected to go be part of the overseas group, and their supervisor said, "No, I don't want you to go, I want you to stay here." And she somehow got in contact with Eleanor Roosevelt and got put back on the list. So it happened, not necessarily the way I described it. So that was a lot of fun, just finding these really cool little places where these interesting people intersected with these women and be able to work it into the book.
Kelly Therese Pollock 25:53
Yeah, I was thinking, as I was reading it, as I was thinking about talking to you that it's been a couple times that I've thought about writing historic fiction, and I feel like I would just get so bogged down in the, in the research, in the details and listening to you talk about how much goes into writing something like this, like, how do you? How do you sort of separate out like, "Okay, I want this to be true to what could have happened, you know, in the in real people, in fact, check and all of that," but at the same time, you have to tell a story, and you have to make yourself sort of get out of that and tell something interesting. So, I guess the the question there is just like, you know, how do you, how do you sort of sort that out in your mind that, you know, drive to want to get it right, but at the same time tell an interesting story? And how do you figure out you know, how much how much has to be sort of true, quote, unquote, versus how much can be fictionalized?
Kaia Alderson 26:50
Actually, I think I was in the revision process, one day, I just sat down in the living room with every book I had, with my many, I think I had my manuscript like in index card form. And I would go through every book, and I made this huge timeline of what happened in real life. And when it happened, and where the source that I got it from just in case I had to go back and fact check Good thing I did that. Then I went through my book, and I found that same timeline I put in when the scenes happened. And then I had, I have like, this huge book of like, The New York Times articles from World War II . So then I had to go back, what did they know? And when did they know it? And I kind of put pieces together like that, just to make sure. So I think that also helped. That's why I made those "Oh, yeah, off the top of my head, I can talk about this." But that helped me because then I was like, "Oh, wait, they wouldn't have known that," and you know, I could still play with my index cards a little bit and fix it, you know, get ahead of the ball. But one thing that I actually missed up until the very, very last pass that even the copy editors missed, is when they found out that FDR had died. I put it on the original version was I had it on the day he died, that afternoon, which is impossible, because they were in Europe. FDR died at in the afternoon at like 3:30 in Georgia, which means that it's about a five hour difference between here, I mean East Coast, so it would have been 8:00 at night at the moment he died. So then I had to go and figure out "Okay, so when did they know in Europe that he died?" because there was no computers, there's no internet, things like that. Luckily, somebody documented the fact that the King of England was informed at midnight, their time, so it would have been the day after and then I think by like, the afternoon, early afternoon of the day after in Europe, they would have known. So I had to go rework that. It was only supposed to be like a two week, you know, really quick turn around. I'm like, "You guys I have to fix this." But I know somebody would have called me out on it. Because there's people out there that know that know it on that level of detail.
Kelly Therese Pollock 28:58
Oh, wow. So I want to talk about your main characters Grace, and Eliza, who, as I've mentioned, are, you know, sort of composite characters, but they're not that they didn't really exist. So I wonder if you could talk some about sort of how, how you came up with their personalities, and then fit them into a story, into to what you know, what was happening at the time and, you know, sort of figure out their, their motivations for joining the army at that time.
Kaia Alderson 29:31
Grace is, the initial spark is based on my Aunt Carmen. And it was my imagining what her superhero origin story was because obviously, I knew her later in her life. And she was the type she spoke her mind, she did not take mess from anybody. She's the one who taught me how to write my name when I was four years old and was demanding standards of me I'm like,"I'm four um," type of thing. And then at her funeral at the very staid you know, formulaic if you will, Episcopalian service, they opened with "I Did It My Way" by Frank Sinatra on the organ, which never happens. So that gives you a sense of that personality. That's just like, how did she become that way or what circumstances was she living with that might have shaped who she was later in life? So that's how that happened. And then when I was trying to figure out her motivations, like what, you know, if the war wasn't going on, what did she want to do with her life? And then one day, she told me, "I, Grace, I"m a concert pianist," and I was like, "Oh, no. I know everything about the history of American popular music. I know everything about the history of jazz. I know everything about the history of Black music. I know nothing about classical music." And I was like, "Are you sure?" And she's like, "Yep." Great. So I wound up reading half the history of Juilliard up until the 40s, to make sure I got the feel of that whole process of being selected and things like that. And to make sure that they did take Black women. The first Black female was admitted in in what became the school of Juilliard in the early 20s, or you might even been 1919. So I was safe on that account, and the name of Mr. Hutchinson, that was the name of the person who at that time would have done the interview and the audition. And he was known for writing all his notes in the notebook, things like that. So that's how I kind of put all that together. And then luckily, like I said, I know a lot about jazz music, especially at that time. So that's how it kind of morphed into her journey, going from classical to jazz. And then for Eliza, in the back of my head, I was remembering the movie "Private Benjamin" from the early 80s, which was a really, Goldie Hawn was this really rich white woman, who's widowed unexpectedly, and she winds up joining the army on a lark. And it's about her experiences of going from that rich, carefree socialite life into the army. I was like, "That would be interesting to, you know, explore that journey as a Black female in the 40s." So I kind of had her, you know, you know, what was it like for her to do that? And then the only thing that's based on me is that when I was 22 years old, I looked about 12. And it took it being in at, you know, in that early adult period of people taking me seriously as that looking like a 12 year old. I was like, I wonder how that would be if you're an officer, and you look like you're barely out of elementary school giving orders. So I kind of heaped it on Eliza in that way.
Kelly Therese Pollock 32:24
Yeah, I love that they are such rich characters, and it's great to see sort of their their interplay, and how that changes throughout the book. And I love this idea of Grace speaking to you and saying like, "Nope. That's who I am!" That sounds pretty great!
Kaia Alderson 32:45
Yeah, this is who I am. Do it. Okay.
Kelly Therese Pollock 32:49
Yeah, that's excellent. As you were doing the research into this, what are some of the other reasons that that women were joining at this point? You know, what, why, you know, so that we've got this sort of Grace and Eliza characters and what's motivating them. But you know, what, there's a lot of women who do join at this point. So you know, what's sort of the range of reasons that they might have joined?
Kaia Alderson 33:16
Just for context, we're coming out of the Great Depression at that point in time. There was still a reluctance to hire Black people to work in the war industries. So this opportunity with the Women's Army Corps, and Mary McLeod Bethune, making sure Black women could participate, there was a sense of adventure, there was getting a job and just making a living where you couldn't necessarily get a job because normally for, at least for Black people, it was like, "Okay, you can be a nurse, you can be a teacher, you can be a domestic." If I don't want to do any of those things and Women's Army Corps is giving me the opportunity to do something different, it was the promise of on the job training. Sometimes you just you wanted to do your part for the war effort. Initially, Grace had, her brother was killed in Pearl Harbor, and she wanted to do her part to make that death not be in vain. I changed it a little bit in the book, but in the final version of the book, but you know, all the same reasons you get when you watch the war movies about the white males who'd signed up things like that, not necessarily " I want to go and just mow everybody down." But it was a little bit more. You know, I just want to do my part to help win the war or support my brother who might be drafted or my father who might be drafted.
Kelly Therese Pollock 34:27
Yeah, and they of course, weren't given weapons training or weapons. But you have this great scene, or series of scenes, where they're learning jiu jitsu. Was that something that actually happened with this group?
Kaia Alderson 34:40
Yes, yes, women, the Women's Army Corps, it wasn't just the Black women, it was everybody, part of their promise in the recruiting efforts to keep the alarmed parents, "No, your your daughter will not be given guns and she'll still be ladylike" and things like that. So they were not given any weapons training and there were white women who were being sent over in active combat zones with no weapons, no weapons trainings. What happened is that on their own the Six Triple Eight organized martial arts classes, and I remember seeing mention of jiu jitsu when I was doing my research like as a one off, so I just checked. And in England at that time, jiu jitsu specifically was a thing. And so it was kind of popular just among the civilian pre war people. So that was something that they would have signed up for. And so they they did actually organize amongst themselves. So at least if something they found themselves in a situation because when they arrived, it was in February of '45, there were still the the Battle of London of Britain was still going on, so they did not experience an air raid themselves where dropped, bombs were dropping, but they were in the practice drills. I think they had at least two and London was still getting bombed. They weren't in London. They were in Birmingham, so that you know, and they never knew if the Germans were going to invade any day now and as and, you know, the very real instance of their ship when they were coming over was chased by a German U-boat. What happens if they were boarded? So yes, yeah. So I had fun with that.
Kelly Therese Pollock 36:14
Yeah, no, it's it's fantastic. Well, I don't want to give too much of the book away. So why don't you tell listeners how they can go buy the book?
Kaia Alderson 36:23
That book is available pretty much anywhere you can buy books in North America and in the UK, from your favorite independent bookstore, from all the major retailers. Just put in "Sisters in Arms" by Kaia Alderson and you should see it.
Kelly Therese Pollock 36:39
Excellent. And is there anything else that you wanted to make sure we talked about?
Kaia Alderson 36:45
I want to just emphasize the point that some people have said, "All they did was sort the mail. That's not a big deal." And I just want to if any, you know anybody who's been in the military, if you've been in the military yourself, if you've even been to sleepaway camp, you know, mail call is your lifeline to back home, to get your spirits up, to get your morale up. And it was very significant what the Six Triple Eight did in getting the mail moving again, because basically, mail going out to the troops in the field had come to a standstill, after D- Day. And then you had if you know anything about the war, you had the Battle of the Bulge and the miserable conditions they were under during the winter of '44. And, and just to get that little letter of acknowledgement from home or something, that's what might have been what you needed to go and fight another day and keep your spirits up. If you watch "Band of Brothers," you see that, especially, I think it was episode six, where they're in those foxholes in the winter wearing summer uniforms, things like that, you know, it made a difference. And they weren't the first ones tasked with that, with getting the male moving again. They had asked a unit of the guys and they couldn't figure out how to do it. They asked some of the women that were already there to do it. They gave these Black women the impossible task of cleaning out six airplane hangars. If you've seen this World War II era ones, they're not small. Top to bottom, front to back, they gave them six months and they completed it within three months. So true, maybe they weren't on the front lines, shooting the enemy, things like that. But they were giving our boys what they needed to help us bring the victory. So that's why I think it's just very important to know when you're reading that.
Kelly Therese Pollock 38:24
Yeah, it's a it's an incredible story. And I am so glad that you wrote this novel because I got to learn about it. And, and it was wonderful to read. So, Kaia, thank you so much for speaking with me today. This was a really fun one for me.
Kaia Alderson 38:39
Thank you. I've enjoyed talking to you as well. Thank you for inviting me.
Thanks for listening to Unsung History. You can find the sources used for this episode @UnsungHistorypodcast.com. To the best of our knowledge all audio and images used by Unsung History are in the public domain or are used with permission. You can find us on Twitter, or Instagram @unsung__history, or on Facebook @UnsungHistorypodcast. To contact us with questions or episode suggestions, please email Kelly@UnsungHistorypodcast.com. If you enjoyed this podcast, please rate and review and tell your friends.
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Kaia Alderson is a historical women’s fiction author with a passion for discovering “hidden figures” in African-American women’s history. Her debut historical women’s fiction novel Sisters In Arms will be published by William Morrow/HarperCollins in August 2021. She has also published romantic comedy and historical romance works under the name Kaia Danielle as well as a few comics short stories. She has been featured on Book Riot and Bustle’s websites.
Kaia is an alumna of Spelman College and the University of West Georgia. She is a past participant in the creative writing workshops presented by Callaloo Journal, Voices of Our Nation (VONA), Hurston/Wright Foundation, Kweli Journal, and The Second City. She is represented by Kevan Lyon at the Marsal Lyon Literary Agency.