Affidavit of Louise Le Breton Maxwell - 1977
Page 1, Affidavit of Louis Le Breton Maxwell, Recognition of VA Benefits, 1977. GGA Image ID # 19aa1df48f
Affidavit of Louise Le Breton Maxwell
State of California,
Alameda County, ss:
Louise Le Breton Maxwell, being first duly sworn, on oath deposes and states as follows:
1. I presently reside at 73 Parkside Drive, Berkeley, California, Alameda County, 94705.
2. In 1917, I was Secretary to the Consul General of France in San Francisco and following classes at the same time for foreign students at the University of California in Berkeley. I was born in France and had been in the United States for four years.
When the United States declared war on the Central Powers, I placed my application for service in France with the American Red Cross and the Y.W.C.A. I was rejected by both because of my youth. Only applicants twenty-five years or older were accepted.
3. General Pershing had sailed for France on 8 May 1917 [sic] and arrived in France on 8 May 1917. It was evident from the very first that the French Telephone system, in bad disrepair after four years of war, would be inadequate to handle the American Army's calls and, in any case, that interpreters were needed.
The decision was made to build an extensive American Telephone system, covering: an area from the French seaports of Le Havre, Brest, St. Xazaire and Bordeaux to Paris, Tours, the Service of Supplies Headquarters, and General Pershing's Headquarters at Chaumont, Haute Marne, from there to the general area of the Front where the American troops would operate.
It was clear that trained telephone operators would be needed to handle the switchboards. A fluent speaking ability of French would be a necessary requirement since traffic over the French telephone lines would be required. There would also be calls for translation of messages for which a knowledge of French would be necessary.
4. In consequence, in November 1017, General Pershing requested the "enlistment" into the Army of 100 French-speaking Telephone Operators to serve in the A.E.F.
There were not enough women who responded, so the Colleges and Universities were contacted for French majors who then were given crash courses by telephone companies across the land in the handling of switchboards.
5. My sister and I read the article in the Daily Cal, the University of California paper, and forthwith sent our applications to Washington. On 8 January , we received a telegram to report to an official of the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Co. in San Francisco for an interview.
It was evidently favorable for on 19 January, another telegram instructed us to report to the same official, Mr. L. S. Hamm, for temporary duty, that while on this temporary duty, we would be allowed a per diem allowance of four dollars for the first thirty days.
6. There followed intensive training at the San Francisco Telephone School during three weeks, then a week of actual operating at the Telephone Office in Richmond, California. After a complete physical examination for "Army Telephone Operators" and taking the oath of allegiance, we were sworn in into the Army at the San Francisco Presidio.
7. On 8 February, the following telegram arrived: "Pursuant to the authority of Secretary of War dated 7 April 1917, you will proceed to New York City reporting upon arrival to Mr. M. B. French, American Telephone & Telegraph Co., 195 Broadway. The travel directed is necessary in the Military Service. Transportation allowances are the same as accorded army nurses. You should apply to the nearest quartermaster for transportation. (Signed) Squier, Chief Signal Officer.
8. On 12 February 1918, my sister, Raymonde Le Breton and I, boarded the Sunset Limited with six other young women on our way to New York.
9. In New York, we joined a group of 25 other young women from different states, all French-speaking, and were measured for Army uniforms, with army buttons and Signal Corps insignia.
We purchased blouses with high collars, lace high shoes, warm underwear, overseas cap, and dress hats with the orange and white colors of the Signal Corps. We sent back to our homes our civilian clothes, for we were told in no uncertain terms that we were in the Army now and that no civilian clothes were allowed.
10. The First Unit, composed of 33 young women, received orders on 23 February 1918 to proceed to Hoboken, N.J. whore we awaited transportation to France. We were billeted in a former bar, 33 army cots alongside each other, one suitcase apiece and one army locker ready to embark.
Two days later, at 5 am we were awakened and told to get ready. We were given a half-hour to dress and pack and then marched to the White Star ship, the Celtic, serving as a troopship. It was beautifully camouflaged.
We were ushered immediately below decks, assigned to our cabins, and told to remain there until the ship was out of the harbor. We sailed at 6 am very silently and stealthily. The portholes were covered with black curtains, so we couldn't even see the Statue of Liberty when we went by.
11. Miss Grace Banker, from the A.T. & T., a graduate of Columbia University, was our Chief Operator. There were 35 officers on board and 1,500 troops. He joined our convoy at Halifax and, accompanied by two destroyers, proceeded to Liverpool.
We had lifeboat drills in the mornings, roll-call on deck at 7 am (which was hard to take) stood at attention at dawn twice for burial at sea of two soldiers who had died of "flu."
We were sleeping in our clothes while crossing the submarine danger zone. Just outside of Liverpool, our ship struck a sandbar. The convoy went ahead, and we remained there one whole moonlight night until the tide changed, a perfect target for submarines.
After an agonizingly long train trip to Southampton in third-class compartments with no dressing-room facilities, we had a taste of Britain at war.
For a week in Southampton, we adjusted to wartime rations. Then one night, we boarded a little channel packet and were caught in a dense fog on our way to Le Havre.
We ran into a submarine net and narrowly missed being rammed by a French cruiser. We spent two days and two nights on the packet boat, sleeping in our clothes, on deck, until the fog cleared and a diver arrived to cut us free of the net.
12. In Paris at last, after a long train ride from Le Havre. The first unit was divided into three groups: eleven going to Tours, headquarters of the Service of Supplies, eleven remaining in Paris, and eleven going to General Pershing's Headquarters at Chaumont, Haute-Marne, with Miss Banker as our Chief Operator. I was among the latter while my sister was sent to Tours.
13. The workload in Chaumont was heavy at first until the second unit arrived, and we were accorded a day off once a week. From the very beginning of our enlistment in San Francisco, we had repeatedly been told by Signal Corps officers, "You're in the Army now." This was brought home sharply one day when the Chief Signal Officer threatened me with Court Martial for a violation of Censorship rules.
(A letter I had written to an operator in Paris telling her to ask for a transfer for Chaumont where there was action, was censored and I was punished for giving the enemy information on "movement of troops had the letter fallen in enemy hands.").
14. On 25 August 1918, I was promoted to the rank of Supervisor and transferred to Neufchateau, Vosges, to the Headquarters of the First Army and the Advanced Headquarters of the Service of Supplies.
My sister was to join me. It was with mixed feelings that I left Chaumont as I had made many friends, working conditions extremely interesting as we dealt mostly with the High Command, social life very pleasant indeed.
I had the pleasure of witnessing President Poincare pin the Legion of Honor's beautiful cross on General Pershing's breast and kissing him on both cheeks to the great embarrassment of the General and the great amusement of the troops standing at attention.
Miss Esther Fresnel and I were also borrowed by the Quartermaster Corps to serve as interpreters to settle claims of French families whose homes and fields had been seriously damaged by our troops. There were also visits to our Army Hospital and to the French Military Hospital nearby.
15. Neufchateau, as Headquarters of the First Army, was a town at war. The St. Mihiel offensive was being prepared; the telephone office swamped with calls, new boards being installed, no provisions made to house Signal Corps women.
Some of us in [stayed in] hotels, others [were] sharing rooms in private homes, many times cooking our own meals after a strenuous day of work. At last, the telephone office was reorganized, the Army engineers built barracks for us in the garden of a villa on a hill outside the town.
A Y.W.C.A. hostess had been assigned to us, Miss Gertrude MacArthur (sister of General MacArthur), who made our life much more pleasant until we were bombed one night.
Neufchateau was the hub of four different roads, North, East, South, and West. Headquarters of different battalions every night moving toward the Front. Bivouacs in the fields everywhere. Troops being moved every night toward the Front in every type of available vehicle, driven without lights.
On 12 September 1918, the attack on the St Mihiel salient took place, a definite victory for our troops in which we took justifiable pride and were proud of our contribution in keeping the lines open to all calls.
Immediately after St Mihiel, preparations were made for the Meuse-Argonne offensive. Our troops were moved north, and the attack began on 26 September 1918, lasting 47 days, meeting a stubborn resistance from the Germans.
In the Telephone office, not only were our lines going to the Front in continuous use, some calls through the French Lines meeting interminable delays, the constant cajoling of French operators to give us lines, but calls from the Front Lines to the Evacuation Hospitals, one of which, Bazoilles, was near Neufchateau, kept us on the qui-vive at all times. The battles continued throughout October to 18 November 1918 when the Armistice was signed.
16. After the Armistice, there was no lessening of our workload, calls going in the reverse direction as two million men had to be sent to seaports for the return trip to the United States.
Winter had come to Neufchateau, and it became impossible to trek to our barracks on the hill. A large garden was found in town, and the Army Engineers moved our barracks to this new location. Small wood-burning stoves were installed in each room so that we were able to keep warm when in our quarters.
On 9 February 1919, my sister and I received orders to report to Paris, where the Peace Conference was being organized. "Travel necessary in the Military Service."
In Paris, we lived at the Hotel Ferras, rue Hamelin, and I was assigned as Supervisor to the main switchboard of the A.E.F. at the Elyséé Palace. The thrill of war was over the intense working hours, the satisfaction of real accomplishment no longer there nor was there as urgent a need for French-speaking operators.
I requested a return home, hoping to arrive in time to enter the Summer Session at the University of California to make up some of the units I had lost. I sailed from Brest on 29 April 1919, arriving in Berkeley on 17 May 1919.
17. From the very beginning, it has been my firm belief that we were enlisted and were a part of the U.S. Army, A.E.F. We were under military rules at all times. The work we accomplished convinced the Defense Department to create the Woman's Army Corps during the Second World War. All those women received Veterans' Recognition and benefits, which have been denied us, the pioneers.
18. I look back upon my military service with great pride. I take pleasure in looking at my citations from General Pershing for Meritorious Service as well as a Certificate from the War Department testifying that I had rendered faithful and efficient service and of all the letters of commendation which I possess.
19. It is a sad commentary on the U.S. Army Command to refuse the Signal Corps women of the First World War the military status which they deserve.
The U. S. Army is how enlisting women. Couldn't this action be made retroactive? We have had many bills in Congress rectifying this injustice, all of them dying an unborn death in the Military Affairs Committee.
We feel that we have never had a fair hearing, that our contribution to the winning of the war was fairly evaluated, and that if this were done, the U.S. Army would be proud to claim us.
Louise LeBreton Maxwell.
Subscribed and Sworn To before me this 1st day of April 1977.
Viola G. Meese,
Notary Public California, Alameda County,
My Commission Expires Aug. H, 1977.
Exhibits attached hereto:
Exhibit 1: Copy of telegram dated 8 February 1918.
Exhibit 2: Copy of Orders dated 23 February 1918.
Exhibit 3: Copy of message from Brigadier General E. Russel dated 12 November 1918.
8 February 1918.
Louise LeBreton, c/o C. B. Allsopp,
Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Co.
San Francisco, Calif.
Pursuant to the authority of Secretary of War, dated 7 April 1917, you will proceed to New York City, reporting upon arrival to M. B. French, Room 17195 Broadway. The travel directed is necessary in the military service. Transportation allowances same as accorded Army nurses in general order 155 1917. You should apply to the nearest quartermaster for transportation, per diem allowances to be settled in New York City.
Chief Signal Officer.
Office of the Chief Signal Officer,
Washington, 28 February, 1918.
From: Office of Chief Signal Officer
To: Louise LeBreton, c/o A. T. & T. Co., 195 Broadway, New York City, N.Y. Subject: Orders.
1. In accordance with the authority of the Secretary of War, dated April T, 1917, you will proceed from New York City to Hoboken, N.J., reporting upon arrival to the Commanding General, Port of Embarkation, for temporary duty, awaiting transportation to France. Upon arrival in France, you will report to the Commanding General, Expeditionary Forces, for duty as Telephone Operator. While on temporary duty at Port of Embarkation awaiting transportation, you will be given a Per Diem allowance of $4.00.
2. Transportation will be furnished by the Quartermaster Department.
3. The travel directed is necessary in the military service.
By authority of the Chief Signal Officer :
E. J. Wesson,
Captain, Signal Corps, U.S.R.
American Expeditionary Forces,
Headquarters Services of Supply,
Office of the Chief Signal Officer,
12 November, 1918.
To the Members of the Telephone Operating Unit Signal Corps, A.E.F.
1. On the occasion of the going into effect of the Armistice with the enemy, I desire to avail myself of the opportunity to express to you the satisfaction with which I and the officers associated with me have observed the quality of your work in these past months and to congratulate you on the large part you have had in our glorious victory.
2. The bringing of women telephone operators to France for service with the American E. F. had no precedent, and for this reason, the experiment was watched with unusual interest. It pleases me a great deal to say that by your ability, efficiency, devotion to duty, and the irreproachable and businesslike conduct of your affairs, personal and official; you have not only justified the action taken in assembling you but have set a standard of excellence which could hardly be improved upon and which has been responsible, in no small measure, for the success of our system of local and long-distance telephone communication.
3. While this has seemed to be the fitting occasion to express appreciation of your work in the trying period just ended, it will no doubt be sometime before the telephone business over our system shows any signs of decreasing. It is not questioned that the brilliant reputation your unit has established for itself will be maintained to the end and that you will continue individually and collectively to maintain the high standard of service you have already set.
Brigadier General, C.S.O.
"Appendix B: Affidavit of Louise LeBreton Maxwell," in Recognition for Purposes of VA Benefits, Hearing before the Committee on Veterans' Affairs, Unted States Senate, Ninety-Fifth Congress, First Session on S. 247, S. 1414, S. 129, and Related Bills. Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office, 25 May 1977. pp. 350-354