The following story was submitted by DAV, an organization that aims to empower veterans by fighting for their interests on Capitol Hill, educating the public about the sacrifices and needs of veterans as they transition back to civilian life, and ensuring that they can access all benefits available to them. You can read more about them here.
To those who hear her story, World War II veteran Anna Mae Robertson is a hero — a Black woman who busted down barriers. To Sheree Robertson, she’s Mom.
Sheree Robertson describes her mother — a 99-year-old member of DAV Chapter 19 in Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin — as a devoted parent with an infectious spirit. She raised seven daughters and one son while working various jobs. And she always made time for french fries.
“To this day, I love french fries, and my mother would always peel potatoes and fry french fries for us as our [after-school] snack,” Sheree said. “She was just such a wonderful mother.”
The fact that her mother served overseas during World War II as part of an all-female, predominantly Black unit now receiving congressional recognition is just “icing on the cake.”
“I’m inspired by who she is, how she lived her life,” Sheree said. “That’s what inspires me.”
Of course, it’s her mother’s historic service that is now grabbing people’s attention and inspiring generations of others. That includes Army veteran and DAV Chapter 19 Commander Tiffany Koehler. Since meeting Anna Mae Robertson, Koehler has been on a mission to spread her story far and wide.
“It’s a story I wish I would have known about when I was going through my basic training, my [Advanced Individual Training], my duty stations,” Koehler said. “I would have had someone to look at. Like, if they can do it, I know I can do it.”
‘The best and the brightest’
Robertson was born March 5, 1924, and grew up in Osceola, Arkansas, where her family worked on a crop farm. When Robertson and her brother were young, their mother died. With their father out of the picture, the siblings were effectively orphaned.
“They were pushed around from one family member’s home to another, and [my mom] often commented that they were poor and they didn’t have money to take care of her and her brother,” Sheree said. “So she and her brother decided they were going to enlist in the United States military.”
Determined to become self-sufficient, Robertson enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps in 1943 and trained in multiple states. She was eventually assigned to the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion — known as the “Six Triple Eight” — and by 1945, she was on a ship headed to Birmingham, England.
“I feel like I was a different person after we had to sail across the ocean,” Robertson said in a 2014 interview with the Wisconsin Veterans Museum. She was unable to be interviewed for this story.
Once Robertson and the more than 850 other women of the Six Triple Eight arrived in England, the mission was clear: Sort and deliver years of backlogged mail intended for U.S. troops, government personnel and Red Cross workers serving in the European theater.
“The Army’s adjutant general signaled to the theater commander and to the War Department, ‘We have a problem: Troop morale is plummeting,’” said retired Army Col. Edna Cummings, a Six Triple Eight expert and member of DAV Chapter 33 at Fort Meade, Maryland.
Families in the U.S. hadn’t heard from their loved ones serving abroad in two or three years, and the troops were struggling without news from the homefront, Cummings said.
Led by 26-year-old Lt. Col. Charity Adams Earley, the Six Triple Eight worked around the clock sorting through undelivered mail. Their motto became “no mail, low morale.” Being in a segregated unit, they were also expected to be self-sustaining. That meant cooking their own food, repairing their own vehicles and maintaining their own supplies. Cummings likened it to setting up and running a small city.
Still, the Six Triple Eight processed an average of 65,000 pieces of mail per shift, often having to decipher the intended recipient based on little information.
“Some of the letters were addressed to just ‘Buster’ or ‘Junior,’” Cummings said. “Can you imagine receiving the letter [addressed to] ‘Buster, Europe’?”
The unit was given six months to process the millions of pieces of mail that had filled hangars. They did it in three. Afterward, they transferred to Rouen, France, and later to Paris, to continue the same work.
“You had some of the best and brightest minds in the nation who were able to solve a problem,” Cummings said.
More than 70 years later, Koehler, the DAV Chapter 19 commander, would learn there was a national treasure living in her hometown of Milwaukee.
‘Just like family’
In that 2014 interview, Robertson said she was more scared leaving the military than she was entering service.
“I had a lot more to worry about, because it’s all on you,” she said. “I had to get out on my own sometime to start doing something.”
Robertson eventually moved to Milwaukee and worked primarily as a nursing assistant, including at what is now the Clement J. Zablocki Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Milwaukee. Eventually, she married John Robertson, also a World War II veteran, and had eight children.
“My mother talked about her military service to her children, particularly to me because I was interested in my mother’s military service as a child,” Sheree said. “Based on what she shared with me, she always focused on the sisterhood of the Six Triple Eight and how the women looked out for each other. And she would say things like, ‘Oh, we shared each other’s clothes, we did each other’s hair.’ They were just like family.”
In 2018, that family would become even bigger. Koehler was working with the Department of Veterans Affairs on the “I Am Not Invisible” photography campaign, an effort to increase the visibility of women who served. The photographer, who had photographed Robertson for the campaign, asked Koehler, “Do you know you have a Six Triple Eight member living in Wisconsin?”
“So I started my research and I was like, “Oh my God, this is so amazing,’” Koehler said. “I was so excited.”
Tapping into her Milwaukee network, Koehler was able to connect with Sheree Robertson, who ultimately introduced her to her mother.
“It was like we were sisters off the bat,” Koehler said.
Koehler soon welcomed Anna Mae Robertson into the DAV family.
“It’s important that Anna Mae knew she wasn’t alone,” Koehler said. “And I think it was important for her to know, too, that she was connected to all of us, in case she needs anything or [her] family needs anything.
“We’ll be there for her.”
A proud chapter commander, Koehler makes it a point to share Robertson’s story and that of the Six Triple Eight. As a Black woman herself, she knows how impactful it can be to have someone who looks like you to look up to.
“I think the reason why Tiffany is so passionate about it is because she realized that they paved the way for her,” Sheree said. “So this is her way of giving back and showing gratitude and appreciation. So that just warms my heart… to know that people like Tiffany would make sacrifices for people who served before them like my mother and the other women who served in the SixTriple Eight. They’re honoring them.”
In recent years, the Six Triple Eight women have finally started getting the recognition they deserve. In 2018, a monument in their honor was unveiled at Buffalo Soldier Military Park in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. In 2022, thanks in part to the advocacy efforts of Cummings, President Joe Biden signed legislation awarding the unit the Congressional Gold Medal.
The story of the Six Triple Eight is hitting the mainstream, too. Cummings is currently working with Tony Award nominee and actor Blair Underwood on a Six Triple Eight musical. Earlier this year, Netflix announced an upcoming film about the historic unit, directed by Tyler Perry and starring Kerry Washington.
But when she was asked in 2014 how she feels about her service, Robertson wasn’t thinking about recognition or the spotlight.
“It’s just something that I did,” she said.