You could call them forgotten, or even erased, the missing women of a lost generation. They’re the women who served in and with the United States military in World War I. They were Sailors and Marines and Army nurses and even telephone operators, without whom American communications would have ground to a halt. The former were all recognized and received benefits, but the latter, the telephone operators, returned home to find that according to the Army, they had never really served at all.
A desperate need
Early in the summer of 1917, the first American officers and troops to arrive in France quickly discovered an unexpected enemy: It wasn’t the Germans, the muddy trenches or even the deadly mustard gas, but the inefficient French telephone service. After years of combat, the lines were unreliable, and not only were the local, French-speaking, female telephone operators unintelligible to the Americans, many seemed to have a laissez-faire attitude and an insistence on polite niceties that didn’t mesh with Gen. John J. Pershing’s idea of the urgency of combat communications.
At the same time, Pershing observed the efficiency of the women in the British Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps, and in November, the American Expeditionary Forces commander asked the War Department for help: He wanted 100 civilian-trained, bilingual telephone operators. Only women were employed as telephone operators at the time and he swore that the women would not be armed, but would “do as much to help win the war as the men in khaki,” according to “American Women in World War I” by Lettie Gavin.
Doing their part
The War Department advertised in newspapers around the country. More than 7,000 women responded, eager to do their part to help win the war. Many didn’t have the experience necessary or if they did, they didn’t speak French. The Army finally settled on 150, who were sent to special training, which was mostly with AT&T and could last weeks or months, with a bit of military training thrown in. They were also required to pass physical and psychological exams, as well as Secret Service investigations to prove they were in fact loyal to the United States. (Many of the women had been born in France or had relatives in France.) Another 400 operators were held in reserve. By the time the war ended, Nov. 11, 1918, 450 women had undergone training and 223 had been sent abroad. In fact, Enid Mack Pooley and 108 other women from the 7th Unit of Telephone Operators had been about to board a ship for Europe out of Hoboken, N.J., when news of the Armistice arrived.
The Signal Corps women weren’t the first women the Army sent to a combat zone – the service had employed laundresses and camp followers since the days of the American Revolution, Army nurses had been officially serving for almost a generation and the Army contracted a handful of other women in France as reconstruction aides (physical therapists) and in the Quartermaster Corps and ordnance department – but the telephone operators, known as “Hello Girls,” were unique.
“This is a perfect example of the nation and the Army in particular having a need for a specific skillset,” said Dr. Francoise Bonnell, the director of the Women’s Army Museum in Fort Lee, Va. “That skillset, in this particular case as telephone operators, resided with mostly women. …Although they were not the only women who were contracted in World War I … what sort of makes these women even more unique is, of course, the specific skills, not only that they could operate telephones, but that they needed to be bilingual.
“Why did they do it?” she asked. “For the most part, it’s women standing up when they’re called upon or figuring out how they can contribute with what they’re good at and without regard to what personal benefit they’ll gain from it. I think that’s a great example for the nation. I think they’re a wonderful example of how women throughout American history have come forward, volunteered, done everything they could to support the greater good … whether it was a particular war or a particular national crisis.”
Most of the women were sworn into service twice, once by a local recruiter or other military official or even a notary public and once when they reported for duty. Their pay was equivalent to male Signal Corps Soldiers, with a chief operator earning $125 dollars a month, down to a substitute operator who was paid $50 a month. They did have to buy their own dark blue, wool uniforms, however, a financial hardship for many of the women. The town of Emmett, Idaho, for example, even held a benefit to outfit Anne Campbell Atkinson in her official gear.
“The ladies of the line wear a real Army costume,” described the Friday, March 29, 1918, edition of Stars and Stripes, “save that their campaign hats are dark blue and that they have shown great originality by substituting the skirt for the more conventional O.D. breeches and putts. Their hat cords, those lovely orange and white things that the Signal Corps wears (so suggestive of fillets* of orange blossoms), are the real thing. So are their buttons. And they’ve got it on the rest of us in that they know how to sew on those buttons.
“Their insignia too are real and terrifyingly complicated. Their rank is indicated by arm bands. An Operator, First Class, wears a white brassard with a blue outline design of a telephone mouthpiece. A Supervisor, who rates with a platoon sergeant, wears the same emblem with a wreath around it. The Chief Operator or ‘Top,’ has a wreath, a mouthpiece, and blue lightning flashes shooting out above the receiver.”
Despite such blatant condescension, the Hello Girls were proud of their uniforms, which they were required to wear while on leave. They were proud to be Soldiers, or, as Oleda Joure Christides said, members of the “first women’s combatant unit in the U.S. Army.” That’s what the women believed, at least. Although their identity papers and the forms they had to sign said they would serve as civilians – and contract civilians at that – according to Bonnell, their paperwork otherwise looked and read exactly like enlistment papers. None of the supposed “contract” workers signed actual contracts, either. Just like her brother, Christides said, she signed up for the duration.
Heroism in France
The first contingent of Hello Girls arrived in France via troop ship in March 1918. “The phone girls – thirty-three, count ‘em thirty-three – are here to take the phone-using portion of the A.E.F. by the ears, and put it in the proper place,” gushed the Stars and Stripes article, which couldn’t help referring to how pretty they were and how long it might take them to do up their hair. The reaction on the other end of the phone line was usually more succinct (and far more gratifying): “Thank God,” many officers sighed with relief after hearing a crisp “Number please” from an American girl.
They were providing an important service for the Army, which had adopted the telephone as soon as it was invented in the 1870s, using it first in the American west and then in the Spanish-American War, explained Robert Anzuoni, the director of the U.S. Army Signal Museum at Fort Gordon, Ga. “The big advantage is now you can hear the commander’s voice. He can talk to you directly instead of having the telegraph transmitted and then you have to have someone copy it down and then when you have the worded message, you can’t hear his tone, the urgency and so forth, so the telephone really brought a new dimension.
“People don’t realize too that these women were up on the front lines,” he continued. “They needed them at both ends of the switchboard. … In some cases, they were operating the switchboards even under fire when they were told to evacuate.”
Six of the women, including Chief Operator Grace Banker, were assigned to operate the switchboard at Ligny, which was close to the front at St. Mihiel, that September. Being sent so close to the front was a great honor and a privilege for the chosen Hello Girls, and the others were all wildly jealous, according to contemporary reports: “The only way that peace could be kept among the Signal Corps family was to promise the girls who weren’t picked … that the up-front work would be rotated as often as possible,” said the Oct. 4, 1918 edition of Stars and Stripes, explaining that the women were subject to the same “discomforts and dangers” as many of the male Soldiers, with cold, leaky barracks that were subject to bombings. But, “according to their superior officers, both in the Signal Corps and on the General Staff, they have shown remarkable spirit and utter absence of nerves” as they handled an average of 40,000 words a day.
After St. Mihiel, the women moved to Souilly (near Verdun in northeastern France) as part of the Muese-Argonne offensive. They handled so many calls, including orders for infantry advances and troop movements, that the AEF soon transferred another six women to help with the volume in what would turn out to be the final campaign of the war. Although they were technically assigned to the headquarters, they were so close to the front lines that Banker remembered German planes flying overhead and shrapnel landing close to where she stood.
Then, Oct. 30, less than two weeks before the end of the war, fire engulfed eight buildings at the American headquarters, including the Signal Corps center. Officers ordered the Hello Girls to leave the switchboard, but they ignored the command, continuing to put calls through as the flames grew ever closer until exasperated commanders threatened them with disciplinary action. The women returned to their posts when the fire was out an hour later and continued operating the remaining telephone lines. Seven of these women, including Banker, would later receive Distinguished Service Medals for their dedication to duty and even heroism.
“Miss Grace D. Banker, Signal Corps, United States Army,” Banker’s citation read, notably excluding any reference to her status as either a Soldier or civilian. “For exceptionally meritorious and distinguished services. She served with exceptional ability as chief operator in the Signal Corps exchange at General Headquarters, American Expeditionary Forces, and later in similar capacity at 1st Army Headquarters. By untiring devotion to her exacting duties under trying conditions, she did much to assure the success of the telephone service during the operations of the 1st Army against the St. Mihiel Salient and to the north of Verdun.”
After the Armistice was signed, Nov. 11, many of the Hello Girls were ordered to Paris to support the peace talks. Others went with the occupation force to Germany to assist with communications there. Their contributions didn’t go unnoticed either: Pershing himself regularly visited the switchboard operators at his headquarters and extolled the service of women attached to the AEF numerous times.
“The part played by women in winning the war has been an important one,” he wrote in General Orders No. 73, April 30, 1919. “Whether ministering to the sick or wounded, or engaged in the innumerable activities requiring your aid, the cheerfulness, loyalty and efficiency which have characterized your efforts deserve the highest praise.”
“Upon your return to your former pursuits, it is fitting that you should carry with you the knowledge that you have been a contributing factor in the winning of the war,” added a Col. Saltman in a letter to Lorena Reed. “When, in years to come, you are asked what part you played in the war, you should feel proud in being able to say: ‘I served with the Signal Corps.’”
And then the Hello Girls came home, requested their discharge papers and Victory Medals and learned that they were never actually Soldiers. Officials reasoned that because Army regulations specifically said Soldiers had to be male, it would have been impossible for women to serve in the Army. Therefore, they couldn’t be officially discharged. But how, wondered Anzuoni, did the Army and the War Department justify or explain how some of the women received Distinguished Service Medals? You couldn’t, he said, be a civilian and get an Army decoration. “If you were receiving military decorations, they must have been in the military.”
The Army had certainly treated the women like Soldiers. When they provided affidavits to Congress decades after the war, many of the women said that Signal Corps officers had repeatedly assured them that they were Soldiers. Stars and Stripes told its readers that the women were in the Army. Even Brig. Gen. Edgar Russel, AEF’s chief signal officer, had to write to the War Department to have the telephone operators’ status clarified as late as July 1918, when the women had been on duty for some four months.
Hello Girls were also subject to military justice. In fact, the chief signal officer once threatened Louise Le Breton Maxwell with court martial after she violated censorship rules by writing a fellow Hello Girl rather too much information about her assignment at Pershing’s headquarters at Chaumont, according to Maxwell’s Congressional affidavit. Melina Adam got in trouble and was repeatedly reassigned after falling in love with a Signal Corps Soldier, Jack Converse, who she married in Paris in 1919, after the Armistice was signed.
So between the rules, the danger and the pride they felt in helping win the war, the woman saw such a dismissal of their service as a deep betrayal: “An injustice has been done to me personally and to the other women who served their country honorably as members of the Signal Corps Telephone Operating Units,” Pooley told Congress near the end of what would be a 60-year fight, led by Hello Girl Merle Egan Anderson, for official recognition of the women’s service. They were finally given veteran’s status in 1979, when only 18 of those who had served in France were still alive. Pooley died the week before she would finally have received her discharge papers.
Part of the lengthy delay was the time period, said Bonnell. Things were too unsettled in the 20s and too depressed in the 30s. And, of course, by the 40s the world was at war again. Then the Hello Girls were mostly forgotten until the women’s movement started in the 70s.
An enduring legacy
This was in spite of the fact that, as Bonnell said, the Signal Corps women helped pave the way for every woman who has served in the Army since World War I. That was in part thanks to Edith Nourse Rogers, who, as a young political wife and volunteer, was appalled that the Army considered the Hello Girls contractors and refused them benefits.
When she was later elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, Rogers swore that women would never again serve their country without the same rights and benefits as men. She introduced the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps bill to Congress in 1942, and then the bill making women true Soldiers in the Women’s Army Corps the following year.
“That really is the legacy, I think, of those women (the Hello Girls),” said Bonnell, “because, of course, without the creation of the Women’s Army Corps, we wouldn’t have 60 years of history. All of the women who serve today are kind of standing on the shoulders of these other women.” The 40,000-some women who served during World War I, whether it was in or with the military or with the Red Cross and other organizations or at home in factories had one other, very important legacy, she continued: women’s suffrage, which finally came in 1920 with the 19th Amendment after a struggle of more than 70 years. Women had finally proved themselves to the establishment.
“Are we alone to ask and take the utmost that our women can give … and still say we do not see what title that gives them to stand by our sides in the guidance of the affairs of their nation and ours?” President Woodrow Wilson asked Congress when urging senators to give women the vote Sept. 30, 1918. “We have made partners of the women in this war; shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and right? This war could not have been fought … if it had not been for the services of the women, services rendered in every sphere … wherever men have worked and upon the very skirts and edges of the battle itself.”
*Editor’s note: Quotes from primary sources reflect original spelling and punctuation.