What a century of war it has been since the “War to End All Wars.” The First World War lasted from 1914–1918, although the United States didn’t declare war against Germany until April 1917 in response to President Woodrow Wilson’s request to make the world “safe for democracy.” The Armistice ending the fighting was signed on the 11th day of the 11th month in 1918. The US commemorates Veterans Day on November 11th annually.
In this centennial year marking the end of the WWI and the Armistice, there are a number of retrospective exhibits including ones in Washington DC at the Smithsonian Postal Museum and the Library of Congress. “The Hello Girls,” a documentary about WWI telephone operators, recently showed at the Women In Military Service For America Memorial (WIMSA). Before even receiving the right to vote, women answered the call to help in World War I. The Hello Girls were American women who volunteered as telephone operators. General John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in Europe, called for female “wire experts.” While 7,600 applied, 223 bilingual women were selected and joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps and sailed to France on troop carriers. The Hello Girls mastered the latest technology—the telephone switchboard—and kept General Pershing connected with his troops.
Elizabeth Cobbs’ book: The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers” intrigued Jim Theres, a documentary filmmaker. According to Ms. Cobbs, “Every command to advance or retreat or hold fire was delivered by telephone and it took an operator to connect that call.” When French speakers needed to communicate with Americans, female phone operators handled those calls and simultaneously translated. Due to the nature of their roles, the telephone operators wore uniforms, had access to national security secrets, and were subject to the same battlefield dangers as any other soldier. Two female operators died in France in the Spanish flu epidemic. Grace Banker, the leader of the operators, was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, an honor that is higher than the Silver Star. The Hello Girls are credited with completing 26 million calls.
After the war ended, some women continued operating switchboards in France or Germany. In 1920, the same year Congress ratified the 19th Amendment granting women the vote, the Army discharged the last Hello Girls. When the women subsequently tried joining veterans groups, they were asked for their Army discharge papers. Upon receiving the petitions, the Army informed the Hello Girls that they weren’t veterans. According to regulations, Army units were open only to men. As author Elizabeth Cobbs explains “They were basically told, you didn’t serve,” which meant the women were ineligible for veteran’s bonuses and benefits. Some telephone operators launched a battle of their own that took sixty years to win. With help from Senator Barry Goldwater and Louisiana Congresswoman Lindy Boggs, the telephone operators were finally recognized for their military service. By the time President Jimmy Carter signed legislation recognizing the women as veterans in 1977, few Hello Girls were still alive.
When one former telephone operator heard the news of her veteran status, she said: “All I want is a flag on my coffin.”
© Joan S Grey, 9 MAR 2018
IndexCardCure™: Nevertheless, they persisted