TEMPE, AZ — At 101 years old, Fannie McClendon still tells stories of her time in the U.S. Army and Air Force. The Tempe resident occupies a unique place in history. During World War II, she joined the only Army battalion comprised entirely of Black women. Her service, and the efforts of more than 800 of her fellow soldiers, could earn her a Congressional Gold Medal.
The 6888th Central Post Directory Battalion, better known as the "Six-Triple-Eight," was sent to England and France in 1945 to tackle a backlog of mail, meant for troops on the front lines. Letters and packages were piling up in warehouses, and commanders worried, without mail, troop morale could sink, at what was a crucial moment in the war effort.
It was expected it would take the unit six months to clear the backlog. Working in three shifts, 24/7, the unit accomplished its mission in just three months.
"Everybody thought it was such a problem," McClendon said. "It was not that much of a problem, because we helped each other, we worked with each other, and we also had a little time off to have fun with each other."
When members of the 6888th returned home, there were no parades or recognition. Most of the women returned to civilian life, in a country that was still segregated. In many places, the women who had served with honor were still not allowed to attend college, or even use the same bathroom as whites.
Some veterans groups have launched an effort to finally give the unit the recognition it deserves, by awarding the surviving members the Congressional Gold Medal. The award, bestowed by congress, is the nation's highest expression of national appreciation.
McClendon, one of just seven surviving members of the 6888th, isn't sure she deserves the honor.
"I was in the service, I did a job, I get my military pension so what else more do I need," she said.
McClendon has been humbled by the efforts and the accolades which have come her way. In September, veterans groups organized a parade right outside her home. She received a state proclamation and a visit from Congressman Greg Stanton. Most recently, she was featured in the Phoenix Veterans Day Parade.
McClendon said she relishes the experiences of her service and credits others for paving the way for her to join the military.
"I could go to Paris. I could see all these places I’ve been reading about in these books so I was excited about it," she said. Asked about the Black-owned newspapers who advocated for Black women to be eligible for military service, she said, "Oh yes, there were many people who did."
While Blacks still faced discrimination and segregation in the U.S., McClendon said service members of all races got a much different reception overseas.
"When they found out that we were American military, there was nothing we could… The only thing we paid for was our hotel bill. The people were very friendly. They were very friendly in Paris," she said.
The U.S. Senate has already passed a resolution for a Congressional Gold Medal for members of the 6888th. The measure has still not been approved by the House of Representatives. McClendon said she'll accept the honor if it's bestowed, but she doesn't necessarily view her service differently.
"We had a job, and we said, let's get this done."