In January 1945, a cargo plane carrying Major Charity Adams, our nation’s first African-American female commanding officer for the Women’s Army Corps, crossed the Atlantic Ocean for war-ravaged Europe. Six weeks earlier, the Germans had launched a concentrated counteroffensive on the Western Front, known as the Battle of the Bulge, killing more than 19,000 American soldiers, and wounding many tens of thousands more. Surrounded on all sides by injury and death, troops were desperate to receive word from their loved ones back home. The Army, however, hindered by the upheaval of battle and shortage of personnel, had been unable to deliver it. More than 17 million pieces of backlogged mail sat in warehouses, piled in rough stacks reaching toward the ceiling, and morale among our homesick troops had reached an all-time low.
Within moments of landing, Major Adams inherited this chaos. Leading the first Black women’s battalion to be posted overseas, the 6888th, she was given six months to solve what the military had deemed an essentially unsolvable problem. Adams realized immediately how much was riding on getting this right. “The eyes of the public would be upon us,” she recalled in her memoir, One Woman’s Army, “waiting for one slip in our conduct or performance.” The world was looking to her and the women she led to prove Black women held value in the military. Failure was not an option.
Adams got to work immediately, dividing her battalion of 855 women into four postal-directory companies that worked around the clock in rotating eight-hour shifts. She organized lists, which kept track of the movements of each military unit, and spearheaded a detailed method of record keeping that helped distinguish between people with similar names (more than 7,500 “Robert Smiths” served in WWII). Each shift, the women under her command sorted and processed approximately 65,000 pieces of mail, sending them out to U.S. troops scattered all across Europe. Letters and packages bearing labels such as, “Junior, U.S. Army,” added to the challenge of getting mail to its intended recipient, but the women were relentless in tracking down each soldier, sometimes following breadcrumbs until he was located. Adhering to the motto, “No mail, low morale,” the women worked tirelessly, successfully completing their impossible task, in half the time they were allotted.
But it wasn’t simply Adams’s organization and out-of-the-box thinking that helped these women succeed in the face of nearly insurmountable odds. In the years that followed, many from the 6888th credited Adams with creating the tight sense of unity necessary to pull together and keep going. While the women of the battalion fought for the soldiers’ morale, Adams fought for theirs—in large ways and in small.
When a male general showed up for a surprise inspection, Adams refused to allow him access to the women’s dormitory while some of the women were sleeping. After explaining the women worked in shifts, with one-third sleeping at any given time, she then refused to interrupt their rest by demanding they be present for inspection. The general threatened to send a “white first lieutenant” to better command her unit. Her famous response, “Over my dead body, Sir,” nearly earned her a court-martial, but made clear to her unit she put their needs ahead of everything else.
The day-to-day needs of the women she led didn’t escape her notice, either. When it was brought to her attention that the women under her command were not allowed entrance to any of the local beauty parlors, she set to work requisitioning supplies for the women and a space for them to congregate and have their hair done. The new beauty parlor became so popular that Adams had to step in, limiting appointment slots for outsiders, such as nurses and Red Cross workers, to make sure the women of her unit could always get an appointment when they needed one.
Leadership takes many forms, from creating structure and organizing ideas to instilling a sense of unity that gives your people the confidence to reach for difficult goals. Major Charity Adams stood in an abandoned warehouse, stacked floor to ceiling with backlogged and undeliverable mail, and knew the only way to complete the task was teamwork. Through her organized and structured division of work, her out-of-the-box thinking, and her attention to the needs and morale of her team, she was able to lead the women of the 6888th to an impossible victory. There is much we can learn from her example.
JOIN THE CONVERSATION
What have you done to increase the teamwork amongst those you lead? Have you made changes that are working? Please share your ideas and comments, below!