Hello Girls of World War I
American Girls Serving in the Army Signal Corps as Telephone Operators in France, Colloquially Known as "Hello Girls." Signal Corps Colors Adorn Hats of these New Bilingual Wire Experts. Their insignia, too, are real and terrifyingly complicated. Armbands indicate the rank. 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—which Is most appropriate for a Top. But the Top says those Jove-like lightning flashes don't mean anything In particular. To be sure, she will insist on discipline, if it's required, but thus far, she hasn't had any occasion to let loose thunderbolts at the heads of her charges. No, the girls will not have the first call at 6:15 and reveille at 6:30, the way the doughboys do. GGA Image ID # 191e69a538
On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war against Germany. As a historically neutral nation, the United States was unprepared to fight a technologically modern conflict overseas.
The United States called upon American Telephone and Telegraph (referred to in this section as "AT&T") to provide equipment and trained personnel for the Army Signal Corps in France.
AT&T executives in Army uniform served at home under the provisions of the Act entitled "An Act for making further and more effectual provision for the national defense, and for other purposes.", approved June 3, 1916 (referred to in this section as the "National Defense Act of 1916"), which allowed for the induction of individuals with specialized skills into a reserve force.
When General John Pershing sailed for Europe in May of 1917 as head of the American Expeditionary Forces (referred to in this section as the "AEF"), he took telephone operating equipment with him in recognition of the inadequacy of European circuitry and with the understanding that telephones would play a key role in battlefield communications for the first time in the history of war.
From May to November of 1917, the AEF struggled to develop the telephone service necessary for the Army to function under battlefield conditions.
Monolingual infantrymen from the United States were unable to connect calls rapidly or communicate effectively with their French counterparts to put calls through over toll lines that linked one region of the country with another.
The Army found that the average male operator required 60 seconds to make a connection. That rate was unacceptably slow, especially for operational calls between command outposts and the front lines.
During this time, in the United States, telephone operating was largely sex-segregated. Hired for their speed in connecting calls, women filled 85 percent of the telephone operating positions in the United States. It took the average female operator 10 seconds to make a connection.
On November 8, 1917, General Pershing cabled the War Department and wrote, "On account of the great difficulty of obtaining properly qualified men, request organization and dispatch to France a force of women telephone operators all speaking French and English equally well."
To begin, General Pershing requested 100 women under the command of a commissioned captain, writing that "All should have allowances of Army nurses and should be uniformed."
The War Department sent press releases to newspapers across the United States to recruit women willing to serve for the war duration and face submarine warfare and aerial bombardment hazards.
These articles emphasized that patriotic women would be "full-fledged soldier[s] under the articles of war" and would "do as much to help win the war as the men in khaki who go 'over the top.'". All women selected would take the Army oath.
On 19 March 1918, Miss Hortense Levy of Philadelphia Received a Western Union Telegraph Instructing Her to Report for Training in Telephony, Also Known as Telephone Operation. WW1 Chief Signal Officer Major General George Owen Squier Later Cited Women’s “Unquestioned Superiority” as Switchboard Operators and Their Value in Freeing Men for the Fighting Front. The Report of the Chief Signal Officer, 1919, Declared That “The Use of Women Operators throughout the Entire War Was Decidedly a Success…”. GGA Image ID # 1976ea582e
Army Signal Corps Telephone Operator Miss Hortense Levy of Philadelphia Dressed in Uniform, circa 1918. GGA Image ID # 197756705a
More than 7,600 women volunteered for the 100 positions described above, and the first recruits took the Army oath on January 15, 1918.
In America, women primarily made up the workforce of civilian telephone operators. Nearly 10,000 women applied to fill Pershing's request. Those accepted into the program underwent a challenging selection process and agreed to serve for the war duration.
The women were evaluated on tests similar to those given to Army officer candidates. Then they were individually investigated by the Secret Service.
Group of "Hello Girls" Standing in Front of a Building in France, ca 1918. Photograph by Bain News Service. Library of Congress, LC # 2014706868. GGA Image ID # 191eb02ce8
Because the nature of the work required them to handle highly confidential information, the Army investigated their loyalty and motivations for serving more thoroughly than the average soldier.
Their training included daily military drills. They were taught about the Army, its traditions, and military terms. They wore a uniform, were given ranks, and were subject to inspections.
Like nurses and doctors at the time, female Signal Corps members had relative rather than traditional ranks and were ranked as Operator, Supervisor, or Chief Operator. When promoted, the women were required to swear the Army oath again.
In every way, they appeared to be soldiers. And their abilities overseas proved invaluable: They were far more effective than men in operating the military telephone and had an unmatched proficiency in their British counterparts. Without the Hello Girls, "It would be impossible to brigade American troops."
Of approximately 1,750 applicants, the Army trained 450 women, and 233 ultimately sent overseas to serve as telephone operators. Colloquially dubbed "Hello Girls," these women were primarily stationed in England and France (and Germany after the Armistice was signed); some were stationed to work on the front lines in locations such as Saint Mihiel and Souilly, France.
Typical Operating Unit at One of the Posts in France of the US Army Signal Corps Telephone Operators, 1918. GGA Image ID # 1977c35d8e
Telephone operators were the first women to serve as soldiers in non-medical classifications, and the job of the operators was to help win the war, not to mitigate the harms of the war. In popular parlance, they were known as the "Hello Girls."
Signal Corps Operators wore Army uniforms and Army insignia always and standard-issue identity disks in case of death and were subject to court-martial for infractions of the military code.
Military code allowed only for men's induction, and the code remained unchanged despite General Pershing's orders. Nevertheless, legal counsel also recognized that the National Defense Act of 1916, which allowed for the induction of members of the United States telephone industry into the Armed Forces, imposed no gender restrictions.
Bilingual Telephone Operators Arrive in France
Four days later, on March 24, 1918, the first contingent of operators began their official duties in France. The operators arrived before most Armed Forces infantrymen to facilitate logistics and deployment and spent their first night in Paris under German bombardment.
According to historian Rebecca Robbins Raines in Getting the Message Through: A Branch History of the US Army Signal Corps, the first unit of female telephone operators to serve with the American Expeditionary Forces arrived in Paris during March 1918.
After the operators' arrival, telephone service in France improved immediately, as calls tripled from 13,000 to 36,000 per day.
Approximately 200 female telephone operators ultimately served in operating units in the First, Second, and Third Army Headquarters.
The women worked in Paris and dozens of other locations throughout France and England. Nicknamed the "Hello Girls," these women worked long hours, often under combat conditions.
The Army quickly recruited, trained, and deployed five additional contingents of female Signal Corps operators. With this personnel, calls increased to 150,000 per day.
Group of American Telephone Girls on Their Arrival for "Hello" Duty in France. They All Can Speak Both English and French, March 1918. They Arrived Just the Other Day, and Like Everything Else, That's New and Interesting in the Army—Yes, They're In It. Too—They Were Lined up Before a Signal Corps Camera and Shot. Grouped About the Base of a Statue in a Little Paris Square, They Presented a Pleasing Sight. (American Girls Always Do.) the Ladies of the Line Wear a Real Army Costume, 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 Tiling. So Are Their Buttons. And They've Got It on the Rest of Us in That They Know How to Sew on Those Buttons When They Come Off. National Archives Identifier 530718. GGA Image ID # 191e57b026
In addition to standard telephone operating, bilingual Signal Corps members provided simultaneous translation between officers from France and officers from the United States, who communicated by telephone.
In one instance, the Army forcefully evacuated the Female Telephone Operators Unit of the First Army Headquarters because the women refused to desert their posts even after their building caught fire.
The women, after readmittance to the building, restored operations within an hour. They subsequently won a commendation from the chief signal officer of the First Army. Grace Banker, a chief operator, even received a Distinguished Service Medal for her wartime service.
Unbeknownst to the women operators and their immediate officers, the Army's legal counsel ruled internally on March 20, 1918. The women were not soldiers but contract employees, even though they had not seen or signed any contracts.
The Hello Girls in France are awaiting inspection and review by General Pershing. GGA Image ID # 191e569806
The AEF fought their first major battles in the last two months of the war. By that point, the Signal Corps considered women's contributions to be so essential that, in telephone exchanges closest to the front line, the Army exclusively used women rotating 12-hour shifts. The Army established rotating 8-hour shifts in the rear and gave male soldiers the overnight shift when telephone traffic was slower.
WWI Chief Signal Officer Major General George Owen Squier later cited women's "unquestioned superiority" as switchboard operators and their value in freeing men for the fighting front.
The Report of the Chief Signal Officer, 1919, declared that "The use of women operators throughout the entire war was decidedly a success…"
The "Hello Girls" Return Home and Declared Civilians, not Military.
Although women served in a military capacity for the US Navy, Marine Corps, and Coast Guard after the war was over, it was decided that technically only men could be members of the US Army.
In other words, while the Navy had opened enlistment to women during World War I, the Army did not. As a result, the Army did not consider the Hello Girls as servicewomen and did not issue honorable discharges.
Therefore, the 233 Hello Girls were not regarded as veterans of the war they had served in.
The female operators returned home after the war with little recognition and no veterans' benefits. Only decades later, in 1978, did legislation award the operators veterans' status.
Despite the regrettable lag in official recognition, proponents of the gender integration of the Army during WWII often cited the Signal Corps' successful employment of the "Hello Girls."
These patriotic women took the same oath of allegiance as soldiers, received the same pay as soldiers, and wore the signal corps symbol. Serving with distinction, seven of these women were awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. One should note that upon their discharge, the 'Hello Girls" did not receive veteran's status or any of the benefits that go along with that designation.
In 1930, a fellow telephone operator named Merle Egan Anderson started fighting for US Army Signal Corps telephone operators' military benefits.
It wasn't until Congress passed the 1977 GI Improvement Bill that the Hello Girls finally received recognition from the government for their service.
When President Carter signed it into law, the Hello Girls were given discharges from the Military and granted Veteran benefits. Only 18 of them were still alive at the time.
Seven bilingual operators—
- Served at the Battles of St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne under the immediate command of General Pershing
- Staffed the Operations Boards through which orders to advance, fire, and retreat were delivered to soldiers in the trenches, to artillery units on alert, and pilots awaiting orders at French airfields
- Were awarded a "Defensive Sector Clasp" for the Meuse-Argonne operation
The Chief Operator supervising the Hello Girls, Grace Banker of Passaic, New Jersey, was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. Out of 16,000 eligible Signal Corps officers, Banker was one of only 18 individuals so honored.
Thirty additional operators received special commendations, many signed by General Pershing himself, for "exceptionally meritorious and conspicuous services" in "Advance Sections" of the conflict.
The war ended on November 11, 1918. As of that date, 223 female operators served in France and had connected 26,000,000 calls for the AEF.
The Chief Signal Officer of the Army Signal Corps wrote in his official report two days after the date on which the war ended that "a large part of the success of the communications of this Army is due to … a competent staff of women operators.".
After the war ended, some women were ordered to Coblenz in Germany for that country's occupation and to Paris for the Paris Peace Treaty of 1919 to continue telephone operations, sometimes in direct support of President Woodrow Wilson.
Corah Bartlett and Inez Crittenden died in France in the United States service and were buried there in military cemeteries with military ceremonies. Those operators died of the same influenza pandemic that killed more Armed Forces soldiers than combat operations.
Women of the Army Signal Corps were ineligible for discharge until formal release. Because of their logistics role, those women were among the last soldiers to come home to the United States. The last Signal Corps operators returned from France in January of 1920.
Upon arrival in the United States, the Army informed female veterans that they had performed as civilians, not soldiers, even though operators had served in Army uniform in a theatre of war surrounded by similarly engaged men.
Despite the objections of General George Squier, the top-ranking officer in the Signal Corps, the Army denied Signal Corps women the veterans' benefits granted to male soldiers and female nurses, such as—
- Hospitalization for disabilities incurred in the line of duty
- Cash bonuses
- Soldiers' pensions
- Flags on their coffins
- The Victory Medals promised them in France
For the next 60 years, female veterans, led by Merle Egan from Montana, petitioned Congress more than 50 times for their recognition. In 1977, under the sponsorship of Senator Barry Goldwater, Congress passed legislation to retroactively acknowledge the military service of the Women's Airforce Service Pilots (referred to in this section as "WASPs") of World War II and "the service of any person in any other similarly situated group the members of which rendered service to the Armed Forces of the United States in a capacity considered civilian employment or contractual service at the time such service was rendered."
On November 23, 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed the legislation described above into law as the GI Bill Improvement Act of 1977 (Public Law 95–202; 91 Stat. 1433).
The Signal Corps telephone operators applied for and were granted status as veterans in 1979.
Only 33 of the operators who had returned home after the war were still alive to receive their Victory Medals and official discharge papers, which were finally awarded in 1979.
Olive Shaw from Massachusetts returned to the United States after the war, where she worked on Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rogers's professional staff.
Shaw lived to receive her honorable discharge and was the first burial when the Massachusetts National Cemetery opened on October 11, 1980. Shaw's uniform is on display at the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Missouri.
Upon receiving her honorable discharge at a ceremony in her home in Marine City, Michigan, "Hello Girl" Oleda Joure Christides raised the paper to her lips and kissed it. The only thing Christides ever wanted from the Federal Government was a flag on her coffin.
On July 1, 2009, President Barack Obama signed into law Public Law 111–40 (123 Stat. 1958), which awarded the WASPs the Congressional Gold Medal for their service to the United States.
For their role as pioneers who paved the way for all women in uniform and for service that was essential to victory in World War I, the "Hello Girls" merit similar recognition.
S.206 — 116th Congress (2019-2020), S.206 - Hello Girls Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2019, Sponsor: Sen. Tester, Jon [D-MT] (Introduced 01/24/2019) Committees: Senate - Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs Latest Action: Senate - 01/24/2019 Read twice and referred to the Committee on Banking, Housing, and Urban Affairs.
"Hello Girls Here In Real Army Duds," in The Stars and Strips: Official Newspaper of te A.E.F., Paris, France, Vol. 1, No. 8, Friday, 29 March 1918, pp. 1-2.
Susan Thompson, CECOM Command Historian, "Hello Girls of World War 1," 27 March 1920. https://www.army.mil/article/234046/hello_girls_of_world_war_i Retrieved 26 March 1921.
Kenneth Holliday, "The Served: The 'Hello Girls' of WWI and their sixty-year battle for recognition, 30 March 2020. https://blogs.va.gov/VAntage/72875/they-served-the-hello-girls-of-wwi-and-their-sixty-year-battle-for-recognition/ Retrieved 26 March 2021.
Women in World War I, National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/articles/women-in-world-war-i.htm Retrieved 26 March 2021.