Sorting the mail, blazing a trail: African-American women in WWII

“I’m going to send a white first lieutenant down here to show you how to run this unit.”

The general’s yell hung in the air, shocking the Soldiers lined up at attention. As chew-outs go, telling a major, a battalion commander, no less, that a lieutenant would be taking over was particularly degrading.

But the general didn’t plan to send just any lieutenant. He planned to send a white lieutenant. The implication, of course, was that it would be a white male lieutenant and he was dressing down one of the highest-ranking African-American women in the Army, the commander of 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion. The battalion was the only black Women’s Army Corps unit deployed to Europe in World War II.

“Over my dead body, sir,” replied Maj. Charity Adams, not sure if she was most insulted by “white,” “first lieutenant” or “white first lieutenant,” she explained in her memoirs, “One Woman’s Army: A black officer remembers the WAC.” She knew she might be court-martialed, so she planned to charge the general, whom she never names, with violating the Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Command’s rules against explicitly stressing segregation.

Battalion Commander Maj. Charity Adams and Executive Officer Capt. Abbie Noel Campbell inspect the first Soldiers of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion to arrive in England, February 15, 1945. The only African-American Women’s Army Corps unit sent to Europe during World War II, the 6888th was responsible for clearing years’ worth of backlogged mail in both England and France. Viewing their jobs as crucial to morale at the front, they processed some 65,000 pieces of mail a shift and worked three shifts a day. At the same time, the Soldiers faced constant prejudice and broke gender and racial barriers. (Photo courtesy of the National Archives)

Battalion Commander Maj. Charity Adams and Executive Officer Capt. Abbie Noel Campbell inspect the first Soldiers of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion to arrive in England, February 15, 1945. The only African-American Women’s Army Corps unit sent to Europe during World War II, the 6888th was responsible for clearing years’ worth of backlogged mail in both England and France. Viewing their jobs as crucial to morale at the front, they processed some 65,000 pieces of mail a shift and worked three shifts a day. At the same time, the Soldiers faced constant prejudice and broke gender and racial barriers. (Photo courtesy of the National Archives)

Forming the WAC

Adams was the first African-American woman to be commissioned into the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, in the summer of 1942. Including African-Americans in the WAAC had been a challenge, but ultimately African-American newspapers and activists, including Mary McLeod Bethune, a member of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Black Cabinet,”and her good friend First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, prevailed. A quota was set for 10 percent of the total WAAC, which became the WAC about a year later. There was space for 40 in the first officer training class, and it was clear that they would have to be the best of the best.

Second Officer (1st Lt.) Violet Hill poses after completing the first officer candidate school class for the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, in August 1942. African-American women were allotted 40 slots in that first class, and they had to be well-educated and have professional experience. Later in the war, Hill served as a captain and commander of Company D, 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion. (Photo courtesy of Violet Hill Askins Gordon via the Veterans History Project, Library of Congress)

Second Officer (1st Lt.) Violet Hill poses after completing the first officer candidate school class for the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps at Fort Des Moines, Iowa, in August 1942. African-American women were allotted 40 slots in that first class, and they had to be well-educated and have professional experience. Later in the war, Hill served as a captain and commander of Company D, 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion. (Photo courtesy of Violet Hill Askins Gordon via the Veterans History Project, Library of Congress)

“I was sure I would never pass,” recalled Capt. Violet Hill, Company D commander. “At that time, I had completed two years of college. … Their goal was 40 Negro women who would then form the officer corps that would train the subsequent enlisted women. … Their standards, their expectations and their hopes were high. … They preferred women who had not only the education background but also some maturity and work experience, which would be an asset in embarking on an endeavor that was experimental and had a lot riding on it.”

“There’s no doubt that in that first class, both African-American as well as white women, they did really select the best that they could to give the Women’s Army Corps the best possible chances,” agreed Dr. Francoise Bonnell, director of the U.S. Army Women’s Museum, noting that the women were all professionals, some with masters’ and law degrees.

Segregation

While the WAAC/WAC was segregated with separate “Negro” companies and barracks – Adams writes of her shock at being told to step aside with all the other “colored” girls – it was less so than the rest of the Army, according to Bonnell. The WAC was so small that all of the Soldiers usually trained together, for example, and an attempt to designate colored tables in the cafeteria lasted only a few days when that first group of African-American WACs refused to eat. And in one of her assignments, Adams worked in an all-white office.

That’s not to say the women didn’t encounter blatant racism. Travel, especially throughout the south, could be especially humiliating. “The incident that I’ll never forget is when there were four of us having to change trains,” remembered Staff Sgt. Evelyn Martin. “I was informed by a train conductor, we – and he used the n-word – could not ride the train. I kept my composure and I said, ‘We have to ride it. The military has to know where we are.’ In order to ride that train, the officer of the day … and an MP and the conductor – they found a piece of wrapping paper and some cord and separated us from the white passengers.”

Adams tells similar stories, and as she rose through the ranks, her very uniform started to raise questions: “I was waiting with my parents in the small, dirty, and crowded ‘colored’ waiting room in the Atlanta railroad station,” she recalled. “There were very many military personnel roaming around the station … so the MPs were constantly moving throughout the crowd. … Two white MPs … addressed me.

“‘Some people have – there was a question – ’

“‘Yes, I see. You want to know if I really am a major in the U.S. Army. … Names? I can see your rank. Your serial numbers? Your unit? Location? The name of your commanding officer?’” Adams asked, advising the men to report themselves before she had the chance. They learned a lesson, she wrote, adding that another MP refused to question her when confronted by a suspicious passenger.

Those reactions were harbingers of the surprise and hostility she and her executive officer, Capt. Abbie Noel Campbell, encountered when they flew to Europe in January 1945 in advance of their battalion. They were, she wrote, “among U.S. military personnel who could not believe Negro WAC officers were real. Salutes were slow in coming and, frequently, returned with great reluctance.”

First in Europe

The two women were literally the first black WACs in Europe and, technically, they weren’t supposed to be there. Although black Army nurses served in combat zones, when African-Americans had first been allowed to join the WAC, it had been with the proviso that they could never serve overseas. It only happened because of the “needs of the Army,” said Bonnell. “That’s how we oftentimes see policies and progress. … After the D-Day invasion … the mail very quickly became backed up. … There was also a push by African-American groups to try to force the War Department to allow and to actually create requisitions for African-American WACs in the European Theater. … Eventually, based on this need, a requisition was sent out for 800 women.”

Many of the women were hand-picked. They were blazing a trail and they would have to excel. They had to be, as Adams told her troops, “the best WAC unit ever sent into a foreign theater. … The eyes of the public would be upon us, waiting for one slip in our good conduct or performance.”

“One day I came home from work … and the girls said … ‘Your name’s on the board,’” remembered Staff Sgt. Essie O’Bryant. “There was a list of girls selected to go overseas. … I went in to my commanding officer (Capt. Campbell) … and she said, ‘I selected the girls that I would like to go overseas with me.’ … It was an honor for her to think that much of me.”

An overwhelming task

After long, fraught journeys across the Atlantic that involved shadowing by German U-boats and a V-1 “buzz” bomb that landed just as some of them disembarked in Scotland, the Soldiers of the 6888th arrived in Birmingham, England, in February 1945. They were stationed at an old school and it must have been a dismal prospect: Mattresses were made from straw, showers were in the courtyard and heat was almost nonexistent. In a large warehouse, stacked ceiling-high were piles of mail, years’ worth of letters and packages waiting to be delivered to millions of service members, civilians and aid workers all over the Continent.

French civilians and Soldiers from the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion sort mail in the spring of 1945. The only African-American Women’s Army Corps unit sent to Europe during World War II, the 6888th was responsible for clearing years’ worth of backlogged mail in both England and France. Viewing their jobs as crucial to morale at the front, they processed some 65,000 pieces of mail a shift and worked three shifts a day. At the same time, the Soldiers faced constant prejudice and broke gender and racial barriers. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Women’s Museum)

French civilians and Soldiers from the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion sort mail in the spring of 1945. The only African-American Women’s Army Corps unit sent to Europe during World War II, the 6888th was responsible for clearing years’ worth of backlogged mail in both England and France. Viewing their jobs as crucial to morale at the front, they processed some 65,000 pieces of mail a shift and worked three shifts a day. At the same time, the Soldiers faced constant prejudice and broke gender and racial barriers. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Women’s Museum)

It was a massive undertaking, but the women knew mail from home meant everything to Soldiers on the line, so they buckled down and worked three shifts a day, seven days a week. (This was actually the reason the general accused Adams of incompetence. He expected to inspect the whole battalion and was livid when only a third of the Soldiers were available. He later apologized and told her he respected her for standing up to him.)

“They supplied us with files, the names of men who were enlisted in the Army in the European Theater,” remembered Pfc. Dorothy Turner. “You know what was so exciting about that? There was part of the history of these men on the files. … You could see the last time that this man got mail and you were so determined to find him because you had this pile of mail that he should have gotten over the years and packages. … You knew that he had not gotten any news from his family or friends … and you were determined to try to find him.”

It required immense attention to detail. For the same reasons the mail had gotten backlogged in the first place, many Soldiers simply didn’t have the time to keep their address cards up to date as their units advanced, which sometimes required two or three changes a week. Soldiers also changed units. And then there were the name duplications.

“At one point,” Adams wrote, “we had more than 7,500 Robert Smiths. … There were, of course, tens of thousands of Roberts with other last names. Moreover, there were variations of first names, nicknames, that are used in the United States: Bob, Rob, Bobby, Robby, Bert, and so forth, just for Robert.”

In addition to tracking down Soldiers, the WACs also had to sensor the mail, blacking out sensitive information. They had to print V-mail cards. (The military would photograph certain letters and send them overseas on microfilm. It saved space and weight, but was time-consuming.) They processed some 65,000 pieces of mail a shift and finished a six-month job in three. Then they were off to Rouen, France, to tackle another backlog, and then Paris.

Tragedy struck in France, where three of the WACs died in a jeep accident while on furlough. They were buried in Normandy.

Furloughs were common, however, and the women found time to relax and travel despite their heavy workloads. The 6888th veterans also all spoke of how friendly the people of Birmingham in particular were, welcoming the WACs into their homes and treating them with a respect many had never experienced at home – or with their own countrymen in Europe.

Cpl. Alyce Dixon (right) poses with other members of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion during World War II. One of the last living veterans of the battalion, Dixon, who served from 1943 to 1946, passed away at the age of 108, Jan. 27, 2016. (Photo courtesy of the late Alyce Dixon)

Cpl. Alyce Dixon (right) poses with other members of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion during World War II. One of the last living veterans of the battalion, Dixon, who served from 1943 to 1946, passed away at the age of 108, Jan. 27, 2016. (Photo courtesy of the late Alyce Dixon)

Standing up to racism

Although black and white WACs had initially used the same Red Cross hotels and recreation facilities without incident, one day Red Cross officials proudly announced that they had procured a separate hotel for the 6888th in London, suggesting the WACs would prefer it that way. It was a nice hotel, but Adams told them, “as long as I am a commanding officer … not one member of that unit will ever spend one night here.”

As far as she knew, no one ever did. It was, she wrote, “an opportunity to stand together for a common cause.”

After the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion set up its facilities at Rouen, France, it held an "open house," which was attended by hundreds of African-American Soldiers. Pvt. Ruth L. James of the battalion area is on duty at the gate, May 26, 1945. When the 6888th arrived in Rouen in the spring of 1945, it caused a sensation among African-American Soldiers, who were so happy to see girls from home that they crowded the gates daily, causing such a disruption that the battalion sometimes had to call in military police. It had its own MPs, but they were not allowed to carry firearms. Instead, the women learned judo. (U.S. Army photo courtesy of the National Archives)

After the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion set up its facilities at Rouen, France, it held an “open house,” which was attended by hundreds of African-American Soldiers. Pvt. Ruth L. James of the battalion area is on duty at the gate, May 26, 1945. When the 6888th arrived in Rouen in the spring of 1945, it caused a sensation among African-American Soldiers, who were so happy to see girls from home that they crowded the gates daily, causing such a disruption that the battalion sometimes had to call in military police. It had its own MPs, but they were not allowed to carry firearms. Instead, the women learned judo. (U.S. Army photo courtesy of the National Archives)

The final insult came on the troop ship home. Adams, who would soon be promoted to lieutenant colonel, was the highest-ranking woman aboard, leaving her in command of not only her unit, but also a white Army Nurse Corps detachment. They refused to accept Adams’ authority. Tired and fed up, Adams struggled to keep her temper under control:

“If you cannot go home under my command, I suggest you pack your belongings. … We sail at midnight. You have twenty minutes to get off. I don’t care whether you go home or not, but if you go, you go under my command.” Adams turned to make a dramatic exit and almost ran into the ship’s captain. He corrected her: The women would only have 17 minutes to disembark. No one did.

“What’s more important? The military policies and customs and courtesies or blatant racism?” asked Bonnell, noting that military courtesies usually won out. She explained that after the war, many of the WACs used their GI Bill benefits for college and even graduate school, becoming educators, lawyers, community leaders and social activists. (Adams herself became a college dean.)

“The experience of African-American women at this particular time lays the groundwork for change, not only for their race, but also for women in general,” she continued. “We see progress in terms of the changes in military policy and opportunities taking place for women in part because of the challenges women experienced in World War II, none more so than African-American women.”

 

Editor’s Note: One of the last veterans of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, Cpl. Alyce Dixon, died at the age of 108, Jan. 27, 2016, as Soldiers began work on this story. All of the veterans’ quotes come from oral histories supplied by the Veterans History Project and Lt. Col. Charity Adams Earley’s memoirs. If you or someone you know served in the 6888th, we want to hear from you. Leave a comment below or share your story on our Facebook page.

Vivandières and spies

 Women’s roles in the Civil War

A family at the 31st Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment Camp, near Fort Slocum, Virginia. Wives of Soldiers who followed them to the camps often worked as cooks and laundresses. Living in the camp helped to support the family and improved morale. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center)

A family at the 31st Pennsylvania Infantry Regiment Camp, near Fort Slocum, Virginia. Wives of Soldiers who followed them to the camps often worked as cooks and laundresses. Living in the camp helped to support the family and improved morale. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center)

Women have historically contributed to the Army in often-unseen capacities. There were “Donut Dollies” in Korea and Vietnam: women employed by the Red Cross to serve coffee, donuts, and a morale boost to Soldiers in the field. In World War I, there were the “Hello Girls,” switchboard operators who facilitated field communications for the Army. And in the Civil War, there were the “Daughters of the Regiment” or vivandières, women who performed household chores in the camp and supplemented medical care.

The United States Army’s Heritage and Education Center in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, is currently hosting a “Women in the Civil War” exhibit, which focuses on the contributions of the vivandières and highlights the exploits of some daring spies. Though their participation in the war was largely domestic in nature, these women played an important role in maintaining the health and morale of Soldiers at war.

Daughters of the Regiment

Women during the Civil War maintained traditional household roles, Melissa Wiford, archives collections manage with USAHEC, said.

“Even nursing at that time was considered a male profession, so one of the difficulties women during the Civil War had is to even have it recognized that they could actually work outside of the house, and actually help the war effort,” she explained.

Despite challenges, many women on either side of the conflict followed their Soldiers to war, literally. Some sold goods to Soldiers in the camp; other cooked or became laundresses for fees, Wiford said. Occasionally, the regiment would hire the women in an official capacity.

“You don’t have a lot of individual women going (along) unless you have some kind of contact (related to a Soldier in some way),” Wiford said. “Because, of course, they would be seen as women of loose morals if they were unmarried or whatever.” Many vivandières were the mothers of Soldiers, or had some kind of personal connection with a Soldier within the unit they served: daughter, sister or niece, for example. Rarely, there were single women from the area surrounding an encampment, but Wiford explained women without a direct attachment weren’t well accepted.

Union Gen. John A. Rawlins with his wife Mary and daughter in City Point, Virginia, in 1864. When possible, Soldiers' families would join them in camp, bringing a little bit of home with them. If families could not stay for an extended time, some would at least visit when possible. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center)

Union Gen. John A. Rawlins with his wife Mary and daughter in City Point, Virginia, in 1864. When possible, Soldiers’ families would join them in camp, bringing a little bit of home with them. If families could not stay for an extended time, some would at least visit when possible. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center)

Not only did the vivandières’ presence help with morale, but it also helped with the survival rate of wounded Soldiers.

“I think one of the big things that women added to during this time period is the fact that they were cleaning, they were cooking food, they were nursing. We lost more Soldiers to disease and infection than we did to actual combat, so in this aspect of them cooking, cleaning, doing whatever they can to keep stuff clean, actually saved Soldiers,” Wiford said.

One such woman, Annie Etheridge, was a vivandière with the 2nd Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment. She joined the Union army at the outbreak of the war to “fulfill the office of daughter of the regiment, in attending to its sick and wounded,” Linus P. Brockett said in his book “Heroines of the Rebellion: Or, Woman’s work in the Civil War, a record of heroism, patriotism and patience,” published in 1867.

Etheridge was known to carry pistols, and her patriotism and bravery made her a favorite with the Soldiers.

During the second Battle of Bull Run in August 1862, Etheridge was tending to a wounded man in the field, when Maj. Gen. Phillip Kearny saw her. He promised to make her a regimental sergeant for her bravery, but he was killed before he could fulfill that promise. She was wounded at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863, after Gen. George B. McClellan ordered all women out of the camp temporarily. Etheridge had been on the front lines when McClellan ordered her to the rear. As she rode back, she shouted encouragement to the troops. A musket ball grazed her hand when she reached the rear — it was the only wound she received, despite often running through enemy fire to aid the wounded.

One man she tended in the hospital, George Hill, wrote Etheridge a letter expressing his gratitude for her kindness, which Brockett recorded: “May God bless you, both now and forever, is the wish of your grateful friend, George H. Hill, Cleveland, Ohio.”

Etheridge was one of two women from the war to receive the Kearny Cross, awarded for meritorious, heroic and distinguished acts in the face of the enemy force. She took an appointment with the government and received a pension for unpaid military service, though her health declined steadily after the war.

“(Vivandières) did ‘little’ things, making socks, making blankets, morale boosters like we talked about earlier. And while it may not seem like a military turning point, every little bit helps in the ways they supported home, or the hospital in cities,” Jessica Sheetz, archive technician, said.

Women like Etheridge filled critical gaps the government could not afford, like supplementary medical care, or extra supplies; they raised money as well as spirits, Wiford explained.

Lousia May Alcott, famed author of “Little Women,” served briefly as a nurse during the war. “It was during her time as a nurse that she became seriously ill and it was something that affected her life. It was only after she was ill (that) she started writing,” LeAnn Fawver, photograph archivist, said.

“It was just how many women assisted in the war effort, either by fundraising or by actual service in the field or in the hospital,” Fawver added. “There were also some other very interesting women,” — women who served in a very different capacity than their vivandière counterparts.

Women as spies

While most women worked as Daughters of the Regiment and stayed within their own camps, some women were recruited for spy work. They possessed the same spirit of the vivandières, but were in a better position to benefit their chosen side.

Women made effective spies because the work was not expected of them, Fawver explained. “They could use their hoop skirts, they could use their charm, their social behavior, to get away with eavesdropping and passing around notes and information, so that was a way that they used their skills to take advantage of the war effort,” she said.

Pauline Cushman, major, United States Army. Cushman, born Harriet Wood in New Orleans, was an actress in Kentucky when the Civil War began. While feigning allegiance to the Confederacy, Cushman served as a spy for the Union. She was captured in 1863 by Confederate forces, but was rescued before she could be hanged. Cushman was commissioned for her loyal service and received a pension after the war. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center)

Pauline Cushman, major, United States Army. Cushman, born Harriet Wood in New Orleans, was an actress in Kentucky when the Civil War began. While feigning allegiance to the Confederacy, Cushman served as a spy for the Union. She was captured in 1863 by Confederate forces, but was rescued before she could be hanged. Cushman was commissioned for her loyal service and received a pension after the war. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center)

“They manipulated their positions as women,” Wiford added. “That’s the basic aspect of it. Because they weren’t seen as important … men ignored them.”

Pauline Cushman, who was working as an actress in Kentucky when the Civil War began, was recruited by the Union to spy due to her southern acquaintances. She was asked to continue her covert activities because of her charm and acting ability. Ferdinand L. Sarmiento’s “Life of Pauline Cushman: the celebrated Union spy and scout,” published in 1865, was compiled from Cushman’s own notes and reflections. It describes her exploits as a spy.

Cushman, who was acquainted with two Confederate supporters, reported their declaration of devotion to the southern cause to the local Union provost marshal in 1863. The officer encouraged her to remain friendly with the men and pretend to support the Confederacy, recruiting her to spy.

“Our heroine carried out her part so well that not one there doubted for a moment she was a most virulent secessionist,” Sarmiento said.

During Cushman’s service as a Union spy, she took on several disguises, such as a young country boy or a southern gentleman. She saved several Union Soldiers from the woman who ran the boarding house she lived in. Cushman caught the landlady attempting to poison the Soldiers with arsenic, and reported her. But some of her most dangerous work was searching for guerilla fighters, Sarmiento explained.

Eventually, Cushman was transferred to Nashville, Tennessee, where she was asked to spy directly on Gen. Braxton Bragg. She was to discover his plans, insinuate herself in society and ascertain troop movements and fortification placements. She knew if she were caught, she would be put to death.

“I am not one to retreat when I am once convinced that I am right!” Cushman said to her commander. “No, sir. The worst can come — heaven forbid that it should! — Yet I say it can come and find me prepared to meet it without one regret.”

Cushman made it behind enemy lines posing as a refugee, and using her charm and position as a damsel in distress, she managed to make copies of fortification blueprints, concealing them between the inner and outer sole of her boot. During her attempt to report back to Union forces, Cushman was captured, and the documents discovered.

She was court martialed, found guilty and sentenced to hang. She fell ill, which postponed her sentence and gave the Union enough time to overtake Confederate forces. Cushman was rescued shortly after Union forces arrived.

The Union proclaimed Cushman a major of the Calvary after her service was over, and gave her a special permit so she could benefit from that rank in her retirement.

“I think what I respect about her story his how far she went,” Wiford said of Cushman. “And of course, she was captured and she was sentenced to die. So you have that aspect that you had a woman knowing how dangerous this is to do something like this, that they know if they are captured, they could possibly be executed for it, and they are still doing it. … That’s what I’ve always appreciated when you find out about these stories about women.”

Unsung, but not forgotten

Many women on both the Union and Confederate sides contributed to the war, officially and unofficially, but sometimes their official efforts went unrecognized. Some states acknowledged their women and gave out pensions based on their service with the regiments of that state, while other states did nothing, Wiford explained. Occasionally, the men of a regiment might champion a vivandière’s pension, if they were all from the same area and the men knew her.

“It’s dependent on where you are, what the case is, if she had supporting documents that she actually did work, and it is regional,” Wiford said of military recognition. Many women suffered lasting effects from their service. Some contracted infectious illnesses, which would eventually kill them, while others were neglected by their regiment and were unable to support themselves after the war, Wiford explained.

The most interesting thing about researching women’s contributions during the Civil War is that some individual’s names are still lost, Wiford added. Women wouldn’t use their first names, just their married names.

“So a lot of these women, when we look at the records and stuff, it’s just ‘Mrs. Something-something.’ Even now, we haven’t recovered all of them completely. We might have a photo of them, but it will have ‘Mrs.’ and you just can’t find their name. Even though we know their stories, they are bound to be still partially hidden,” she added.

The team behind USAHEC’s “Women in the Civil War” hopes the exhibit will draw attention to the contributions of the vivandières, spies and other women who dedicated their lives to serving their country.

“We’ll always attempt to tell women’s stories,” Wiford said.

Editor’s note: Information on Annie Etheridge was taken from “Heroines of the Rebellion: Or, women’s work in the Civil War, a record of heroism, patriotism and patience” by Linus Brockett. Attribution and information on Pauline Cushman was taken from “Life of Pauline Cushman: the celebrated Union spy and scout” by Ferdinand Sarmiento. 

World War I’s Hello Girls: Paving the way for women in the U.S. Army

Hello Girls connect phone calls at the switchboard located in the Office of the Chief Signal Officer at the American Expeditionary Forces headquarters in Tours, France, Oct. 17, 1918. Gen. John J. Pershing asked the War Department to recruit 100 bilingual telephone operators to help run the AEF’s vital communication system. At the time, telephone operators were exclusively women. More than 7,000 applied and 223 served overseas. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Signal Museum and the U.S. Army Women’s Museum)

Hello Girls connect phone calls at the switchboard located in the Office of the Chief Signal Officer at the American Expeditionary Forces headquarters in Tours, France, Oct. 17, 1918. Gen. John J. Pershing asked the War Department to recruit 100 bilingual telephone operators to help run the AEF’s vital communication system. At the time, telephone operators were exclusively women. More than 7,000 applied and 223 served overseas. (Photo courtesy of the U.S. Army Signal Museum and the U.S. Army Women’s Museum)

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.”

Enlistment

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.’”

Betrayal

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.

One woman’s journey from Spec-5 to flag officer

 

In celebration of Women's History Month, throughout the month of March Soldiers will be featuring several pieces highlighting the accomplishments of women in the Army. (U.S. Army graphic)

I grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania, where I adopted my mother’s strong work ethic and family values. I wanted to go to college when I completed high school and enlisted in the military, because the G.I. Bill was offered and would provide me the resources for college in the future.

My approach and goal at any job I’ve had, both as an enlisted Soldier and officer, is to do the best that I can while being honest with myself and (my) co-workers. I’ve always wanted to be successful at any task I’ve been assigned or roles I’ve chosen to take, and attribute this (drive) to (my) family values, integrity and mentors. I also know that I wouldn’t have reached the rank of brigadier general if I had not been assertive and open to asking for help when I needed it.

Julia J. Cleckley became the first minority woman flag officer in the Active Guard Reserve. (Photo courtesy of retired Brig. Gen. Julia J. Cleckley)

I joined the Army National Guard as a specialist E-5, the rank I earned in the Women’s Army Corp. I served as a traditional Guardsman while teaching school for five years, during which time I became a commissioned officer. After the sudden death of my husband (I was a captain at the time), I decided to go on active duty in the Army National Guard (known as Active Guard Reserve).

Traditionally, the ARNG was an all-male organization. I was often the first minority woman to hold many positions, to include the first female ROTC professor at the university where I taught, the first branch and division chief of human resources at the Army National Guard Bureau and the first female personnel chief for the 54 states and territories of the ARNG. Fortunately, I have the ability to get along with everyone, (and) I gained respect by being loyal to superiors and subordinates alike. I do not understand the word “no” and I always accept challenges — they motivate me.

Reaching the rank of flag officer was beyond my dreams. I’ve always known that I have to do better than satisfactory. That drive comes from being a minority and a woman, and achieving that goal through hard work enhanced my desire to continue to open doors for others. One of my greatest and most memorable roles as a general officer was being a special assistant to the director of the Army National Guard.

I served as head of the diversity and mentoring program during its development, and in that role I found enormous potential existed in many individuals for developing leadership. I care about people, about Soldiers and their families. It is an honor and blessing to (have been) the first minority female brigadier general in the Army AGR.

The Army is my home

Once homeless, Staff Sgt. Sharalis Canales often shares her story with young Soldiers at Natick Soldier Systems Center. "The Army has not failed me since I've been in," Canales said. "The Army gives me everything that I need. This is my family." (Photo by David Kamm, NSRDEC)

Many Soldiers have called the Army their home over the years. Few have meant it more than Staff Sgt. Sharalis Canales.

You see, when Canales enlisted in late 2005, she had no home. Instead, she was living in a New York City shelter and facing an uncertain future.

“I didn’t have a place to live,” Canales recalled. “I went to the Covenant House, which is a shelter in Times Square, and I stayed there for six months.”

Canales, 26, has come a long way in six years. At Natick Soldier Systems Center, Mass., she serves as training noncommissioned officer for the Headquarters Research and Development Detachment and as Better Opportunities for Single Soldiers president. Soon, she will represent the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center at the U.S. Army Research, Development and Engineering Command NCO of the Year competition.

“The Army has not failed me since I’ve been in,” said Canales, who made E-6 in five years. “The Army gives me everything that I need. This is my family.”

None of this could have seemed possible to Canales at age 14, when her divorced mother gave up her daughter to foster care. She was placed at the St. Cabrini Home in the Bronx.

“Mainly, the girls that lived there had just gotten out of juvenile detention hall and stuff like that, and I was there because my mom and I were having a lot of issues,” Canales said. “My dad divorced my mom, and I started running away because my mom was being promiscuous.”
The eldest of five children, Canales had a difficult time adjusting to the group home but got plenty of help.

“The staff members, they took care of me,” Canales said. “They taught me everything that I know, and because of them, I am where I am now, and I’m very grateful for that.

“Despite all the negative stuff … with the (other) girls, I always took it and turned it into something positive.”

Canales wound up graduating from Mother Cabrini High School and getting a scholarship to Marist College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., but her world got complicated again.

“I was having adjustment issues,” Canales said. “I think there was probably only like 10 minorities on the campus. It was my first time being away from … the group home. I felt like I didn’t fit in.”

After a year at Marist, Canales transferred home to Monroe College, did another year there and decided to join the Navy. At age 20, she signed herself out of the group home.

“I didn’t make it through the Navy,” Canales said. “So when I came back … I couldn’t go back to the group home.”

Canales went to see an Army recruiter, who drove her to Covenant House, where she would stay until he got her paperwork in order.

“He was with me every step of the way for six months until I joined,” Canales said. “I have been very fortunate to meet very, very good people that have helped me out throughout these years.”

Army life required little adjustment for Canales, a 4-foot-8-inch survivor of years in a foster care group home.

“I learned a lot being there,” Canales said of St. Cabrini. “I would tell you … that having that background experience definitely helped me. (It) set me up for success when I got in the Army.”

Command Sgt. Maj. Brian Warren has been impressed with Canales since she arrived at NSSC.

“She’s made a very positive impression to many on this installation in just the short period she’s been stationed here at NSSC,” Warren said. “She looks to be challenged daily.

“She’s physically fit, has the professional appearance we expect from our noncommissioned officers and loves to teach and train.”

While Canales has enjoyed plenty of success since joining the Army, she has done so without ever forgetting her teenage years. She shares her story with Soldiers every chance she gets.

“I encourage the Soldiers to do the right thing, and I tell them what the Army has done for me,” Canales said. “I spend a lot of time with the Soldiers … setting them up for success, and letting them know what they need to do to be successful in the Army. It’s easy. You just need the tools, and you need to do it.”

Canales is living proof. On the threshold of earning her associate degree from Central Texas College, she already has her sights set on a bachelor’s degree. She also wants to win NCO of the Year and earn her Expert Field Medical Badge.

“I believe if you want to be successful and you want something in life, you have to go for it.”

Such as finally getting your own place, which Canales did after transferring to Natick in November 2011.

“I’ve always lived in a barracks, but because I’m an E-6, now (I) have to live off post,” Canales said. “When I got here, I was like, ‘I don’t even know how to go apartment hunting.’ I had no clue, whatsoever.”

Those logistics aside, Canales might never want for a home again.

“I plan on staying in the Army, making it a career,” Canales said. “The Army’s been great to me.”