Black Jack's Girls - 1982
General John J. "Black Jack" Pershing Inspects the Telephone Operators in Paris. Bell Telephone News, November 1919. GGA Image ID # 19ab862b22
Gen. John J. Pershing wanted American telephone operators in France to keep AEF communication lines open at all times; he got them, and they performed superbly, but as a result, the future of some courageous women remained wrapped tightly in red tape for 60 years after.
Female telephone operators recruited at the direct order of Gen. John J. Pershing were vital to the communications of the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I, but whether they were civilians or soldiers was not resolved until 60 years later.
Ligny, France, two hours past midnight, mid-September, 1918: artillery fire and bursting flares ripped through the silence of the night as Allied soldiers crawled over the shattered expanse of ground outside Ligny to begin the Saint-Mihiel offensive.
A mere ten miles away, within range of heavy artillery and the sound of exploding shells, six women of the U.S. Army Signal Corps Telephone Operators Unit held their positions at a switchboard housed in a dilapidated barracks.
Armed with nothing more than French fluency, a set of ever-changing code names, battle helmets, and gas masks, the women worked grimly to keep the telephone lines open during the battle.
Gen. John J. (Black Jack) Pershing, commander in chief of the American Expeditionary Forces, had personally issued a call for women recruits in November 1917.
After examining the communications network in France the previous May, Gen. Pershing realized that the telephone system would need to be overhauled and that highly-skilled, competent people would be required to operate the new system efficiently.
Since Gen. Pershing had been impressed by the women who were already serving in non-combat roles with the British Army, he sought to recruit American women who were experienced telephone operators and who could speak fluent French as "women switchboard soldiers."
Although the women would not be armed or trained for combat, he noted that "the women who go into the service will do as much to help win the war as the men in khaki."
The adjutant general authorized the Signal Corps to engage the women telephone operators in November 1917. However, the official authorization referred to the telephone operators not as soldiers but as "civilian employees of the Signal Corps." As such, the women were supposed to sign contracts; however, the call for female recruits emphasized the military mission.
Their duty would be to operate the telephone exchanges of the American Expeditionary Forces in Paris and Chaumont, at the various sites of the mobile First Army headquarters, and ultimately in 75 other towns in England and France.
The pay received would be the same for males in comparable positions: operators would earn $60 a month, supervisors $72, and chief operators the munificent sum of $125 a month.
Articles proclaiming that a "disciplined body of several hundred [are] being recruited by the Army Signal Corps" ran in newspapers across the country. Potential volunteers were informed that "in every respect these young women will be soldiers, coming under military restrictions at all times."
Women answered the call with the same zeal as young male volunteers.
"When the call of Gen. Pershing came to enlist in the Army for service abroad to help in the war effort," remembers one keen recruit, "I felt it was my patriotic duty to give something of myself to my country."
Besides patriotism as a motive, many women also realized that service in the Army would be exciting and would offer them opportunities for adventure not available at home.
The original call for volunteers sent out by Gen. Pershing demanded both French language fluency and prior telephone experience, but only about 100 of the women who volunteered after the first recruitment effort were able to meet these stringent requirements.
As a result, women fluent in French were recruited from college campuses across the country. The Army judged language ability to be more important than the telephone experience, which could be more easily acquired through training.
The 33 women finally accepted for service in the First Unit ranged in age from 19 to 35 and came from rural towns and large cities.
Following their acceptance, the volunteers received telegrams from the Office of the Chief Signal Officer instructing them to be sworn into service by either a notary public or justice of the peace, as required under the provisions of the Articles of War and Army regulations.
The women then reported to New York, where they were given physical examinations and measured for uniforms. Then, although they had all taken the oath already, the women were sworn into the service a second time.
Indeed, "Black Jack's girls" were sworn in twice, but none of them signed a contract stating that she was serving in a civilian capacity, which was to present problems after the war. No such agreement existed. The officer in charge of recruitment acknowledged later that the enlistment of these women was not done in the manner prescribed by the adjutant general.
He did not prepare a formal contract as envisioned by the War Department, and he did not notify the recruits that they were to be considered contract civilian employees. The officer's main goal was to enlist the women Gen. Pershing required. This goal was achieved, although the Army ignored legal technicalities.
The women purchased uniforms, just as male officers did, which cost about $500. Consisting of one summer and one winter suit, black or russet shoes, a hat, overcoat, rubber raincoat, and brown Army boots, their uniforms were almost identical to those of the Signal Corps male members, with the substitution of skirts for breeches.
The uniforms had regulation Army buttons, and operators, supervisors, and chief operators were distinguished by different insignia on the white brassard worn on the left arm. Like other personnel who served with the armed forces overseas, the women were instructed to send their civilian wardrobes home.
After a two-week course at the American Telephone and Telegraph office in New York, in which those lacking telephone operating experience received rudimentary training, they set out on their overseas journey. Sea travel during the war was hazardous.
During one unforgettable episode, the entire First Unit barely escaped with their lives when, after reaching Southampton, England, the 33 women of the unit boarded a small cross-channel ferry bound for Le Havre, France.
A dense fog bank had made visibility almost nil, and the vessel became entangled in a submarine net. Unable to move, it was only by a stroke of luck that the tiny ferry escaped being rammed by a French warship.
There was no possible way to evacuate the women. They spent two days and two nights on the ferry, sleeping in their clothes, on deck.
According to the chief operator of the unit, however, no complaints were heard from her troops. "What good sports the girls were in that First Unit," she said. "They took everything in their stride. They were the pioneers."
Eventually, the fog cleared, and a diver could cut the net free of the boat, enabling the unit to reach its destination in France.
Living conditions in the war zone were primitive.
Since it was considered inappropriate to have men and women mixed in one camp, the women were frequently relegated to accommodations abandoned as inadequate for male soldiers. Although the women did not expect luxury, few were prepared for what they encountered.
Indeed, the first night at Ligny seemed like a great initiation for the women into the conditions of the front lines. The previous tenants had left it infested with vermin, which made the night a memorable, if sleepless, one. Stem sanitary measures taken the next day reduced the number of unwelcome pests, and the quarters became habitable, at least for the moment.
One of the members of the First Unit suffered more seriously from the barrack's many faults:
Once I froze my feet badly without even going out of the barracks. I had been working long hours with very little sleep. Before a drive, I seldom had more than two or three hours of rest.
Consequently, when I tumbled into the bed at night, I never noticed anything until my feet began to swell, and then I discovered that the bed covers were soaking wet from a leak in the roof overhead. It was a long time before I could wear shoes again. Of course. I moved the bed, but, although I moved it several times. I never found a place where there wasn't at least one leak.
Another woman of the unit described the improvised toilets: a large table with holes in it. There were seats on top of the table over each of the holes, with a large barrel underneath the table.
Although these make-shift units caused some problems, the operator did not complain about the situation, for "it was better than the hole in the ground they had us using somewhere else."
Fire, as well as water, threatened the flimsy structures. While the First Unit was stationed at Souilly, flames broke out in one of the barracks housing the main switchboard.
Before long, the fire had spread to seven other barracks. Enlisted men and officers strove to put it out, but a bucket brigade was largely inadequate.
During the blaze, the women remained at the switchboards to handle the load of calls generated by the battle of the Argonne drive.
The office housing the switchboard was saved, although the barracks that accommodated the women were not. Fortunately, there were no casualties; militarily, it was even more significant that there had been no break in the communications network.
However, far more demanding and wearing for the women than the occasional crisis was the day-to-day pressure of the work. Their duties required considerable dexterity since the lines had to be switched manually. The job also demanded constant and long-term concentration and ingenuity when often-used lines were obliterated by shelling.
Much of the work was in code that changed frequently. Ligny was "Waterfall." Toul might be "Podunk" one day and "Wabash" the next. Further, the women had to speak English, French, and "American Doughboy French." a task not easy under the best of circumstances.
What is more, there were not enough women to handle the switchboard 24 hours a day, seven days a week. During the period immediately preceding a battle, the women were not allowed time off, and they frequently worked for more than 20 hours straight.
Nevertheless, there were few complaints. The women spoke of the anticipation that carried them along, the periods of uncertainty in which no one could know what the outcome of the battle would be. Morale was consistently high. The "switchboard soldiers" were glad to be helping the men "over there."
The men also were glad the women were with them. There had been widespread skepticism among the members of Gen. Pershing's staff as to whether the general had been wise in requesting that American women fill the need of the Army Signal Corps.
A previous American experiment using French women in this capacity had failed when they proved to be uninterested in the job, and discipline problems had abounded. However, the Signal Corps girls quickly dispelled any doubts about the American women.
One report of the time gave details:
A very busy officer lifted his receiver with a groan at the difficulties he expected before getting in touch with his party. However, when he heard, "Number, please?" in the old familiar way, he was so delighted that he shouted 'Thank God!" so loudly and devoutly that everyone, including the operator, laughed.
On 12 November 1918, the day following the signing of the Armistice, Brig. Gen. E. Russel, the chief signal officer of the American Expeditionary Forces, had nothing but compliments to pay. When he addressed the women, he told them: 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 has been responsible for the success of our system of local and long-distance telephone communication.
The vital role the women had played was acknowledged and appreciated; they were "women who accepted hazard without reservation to serve their country." Indeed, in recognition of their "meritorious service," 15 of them received a citation from Gen. Pershing.
The chief operator of the First Unit, Grace Banker, was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal in appreciation for an excellent job. Although the medal was awarded specifically to Grace Banker, the working of the citation was applicable to all 223 women who served:
For exceptionally meritorious and distinguished services ... 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 Saint-Mihiel salient and to the north of Verdun.
No one had more praise for the women, however, than did Black Jack himself. Shortly after the war's conclusion, he commented that "no civil telephone service that ever came under my observation excelled the perfection of ours. The telephone girls in the AEF took great pains and pride in their work and did it with satisfaction to all."
Gen. Pershing demonstrated his appreciation by holding a reception for the women. According to one guest, it threatened to be a dull party until the general said: "Let's take up the rug and have a little music."
"Black Jack" Pershing danced with most of his guests and was reported to be "some wonderful dancer." One woman concluded that "it turned out to be the most wonderfully jolly party. . . We all lost our hearts to him."
The "switchboard soldiers" soon returned to the United States following the making of peace. Many became engaged in new careers. Others married and had children.
For many, their tour of service brought them recognition in their hometowns. The novelty of their wartime duties greatly interested the editors of local newspapers.
Both the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars granted them membership privileges. Many states gave them bonuses under the state veterans' bonus statutes.
Nevertheless, the women became concerned when, instead of being granted honorable discharges, they received "service termination letters."
The adjutant general, P. C. Harris, was not aware that his orders regarding the recruitment of these women had not been carried out. He had no reason to doubt that the women had signed the contracts required of all civilian employees. He had no idea that they had been sworn in and that they considered themselves to be "members of the Army."
Furthermore, the adjutant general did not realize that the officers in direct command of these women also considered them "enlisted" personnel. Since much of this information was not to come to light until years later, the military establishment had no reason to believe that these women were bona fide members of the Army.
Sixty years after the end of the war in response to the concerted effort by surviving women of the corps, an attorney who donated his services, various lobbying groups, and many prominent individuals, including Sens. Hubert Humphrey (D-Minn.) and Margaret Chase Smith (R-Me.), Reps. Brock Adams (D-Wash.) and Edith Green (D- Ore.), and Gen. Mark W. Clark—the women were finally granted honorable discharges by the Department of Defense in 1979.
By this time, of course, few of the veterans were still alive. Those who were, however, were not bitter about the 60-year fight to obtain military recognition. They were relieved it was over and were pleased that the Signal Corps girls realized their experiences and efforts in the war.
On accepting her discharge, one veteran, Esther Goodall, reminisced: "D'you know, I really felt it was my mission to talk on the telephone. When I was off duty, I sometimes spent the whole night talking on the phone to the boys at the front. I kept thinking it might be their last night."
The all-female Signal Corps Telephone Operators Unit was a select group of brave and dedicated Americans who answered their country's call in time of need. They asked for no favors, and they were granted none.
They expected primitive conditions, and they found them. They understood the importance of their job, and they performed it with unfailing good cheer and devotion. After the war, they returned home, happy in the knowledge that they had been a part of it all. They were "Black Jack's girls." And they did him proud.
Karen L. Hillerich, "'Black Jack's Girls," in Army Magazine, Arlington: Association of the U.S. Army, Vol. 32, No. 12, December 1982.