About six months after the U.S. entered World War I, the Signal Corps—the U.S. Communications unit of the Army—put out a call for women telephone operators. This was at the express request of General John J. Pershing, the top commander of the American Expeditionary Forces on the Western Front.
The women who qualified became the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators. The press referred to them as the “Hello Girls,” but this was a term that predated these operators. It had been coined for switchboard operators in the U.S. shortly after telephone exchanges began.
America’s Entry Into World War I
After the United States entered World War I in the spring of 1917, the military arrived overseas to find a world turned upside down. The French phone lines had been destroyed from the back-and-forth battles; the repairs were mere patches. To permit badly-needed communication for the AEF, General Pershing wanted a better system. The Signal Corps men were expert at line-stringing under adversity. Pershing sent them out to replace old lines and add new. Now that technology permitted it, generals wanted voice contact with their commanders on the front lines.
When the Corps returned from stringing the lines, the men were assigned to operate the switchboards. At home, this was “woman’s work.” The men proved awkward at remembering the line combinations and connecting and pulling the calls. Most also spoke no French, so it limited their ability to be effective.
The Signal Corp commander felt the problem could be solved by hiring French operators. These women, however, were difficult for the Americans to understand. In addition, their pace of operation was far slower than what American operators could do.
Recruiting Women Operators
On November 8, 1917, General Pershing put out the word: American bilingual operators were needed to run the U.S. military telephones in Europe. Ads were placed in newspapers throughout the country, and the American Telephone & Telegraph Company was assigned to sift through the applications.
The company found it difficult to find candidates. Applicants who were experienced as operators tended to not have language skills. Most phone companies would only hire women who spoke English with no accent. Those who were conversant in French lacked training on a switchboard. Soon the application requirements were loosened.
Eventually 1750 women applied. Four hundred fifty women passed a language test that indicated they could handle the work; they were accepted for training. Because the most likely candidates were either French teachers or professional operators, the group accepted was more highly educated than the broad population. (This information is from Professor Jill Frahm who conducted an academic study on the “Hello Girls” that appeared in The Journal of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era, Vol. 3, No. 3, July 2004.)
Operators also tended to be younger than the women the Red Cross selected to send overseas—the Red Cross needed maturity; the Signal Corps wanted speed and skills. Two hundred twenty-three were sent to serve.
Expected to Self-Fund
The one final difficulty for the women was money. Unlike the regular military, the women were required to buy their own uniforms and needed to take their own spending money—they were told to bring about $500 to serve. Some of the women came from well-to-do families or had worked for enough years that they had savings. But for some, the financial requirement was a hardship. Anne Campbell Atkinson of Emmett, Idaho, was one who qualified to serve but lacked the money. Her town held a benefit so that she could to serve.
Those who applied generally chose to do so out of patriotism. One applicant, Cordelia Dupuis, was the oldest of sixteen siblings. Because her brothers were too young to serve, she wanted to represent the family. (Jill Frahm study)
First Group of WWI Telephone Operators
By January 1918, the first 33 women were going through final preparations. Those who had not worked a switchboard needed to be trained before leaving the United States; others needed to brush up their French speaking skills. They were slated to serve in telephone offices in Tours, Chaumont, and Paris.
From the moment they left the United States, the women knew this was no longer “business as usual.” They could not forget they were in a war zone. They traveled through France via a train that had to halt frequently to avoid German air raids. Once settled in their drafty lodgings, they often woke to an air raid siren. They then dashed to the bomb shelters and were there for the rest of the night. One German bomb hit so close to their offices that a shell fragment shattered a window.
On the Job
When the English-speaking operators began answering with “Number please,” the American military were thrilled to hear an American voice on the other end of the call. And their speed and professionalism was noted immediately. The Americans were trained to use their first two fingers to plug in multiple calls, while unplugging calls with their little fingers. Dexterity was important, and this increased speed.
They were soon handling local and long-distance calls, and those who weren’t busy could step over to help others whose boards were lighting up with extra calls. They dealt with delays, wrong numbers, and emergency calls. And the one cardinal rule they all knew was that General Pershing’s calls were connected immediately (within “half a second”) of when it was placed. Other calls were cut off abruptly to put through the general’s calls.
In the bigger war offices, they were managing more than 300 calls an hour. Even after more women were sent over to help, there still were not enough women to cover all the shifts. Because the men were less efficient, the Signal Corps men handled the switchboards at night when the pace of calls slowed down. The women were on duty during the nonstop days.
More Job Responsibilities
The women used both French and English on their calls; they were placing and disconnecting calls made by the military both to locations in France as well as the front lines.
As the military brass witnessed their level of expertise, they began using the women to take care of additional logistical calls concerning secretive movements of the troops and the supplies they needed. Some of the women were pulled into offices where telephone conversations were carried out in code.
In August of 1918 the Americans moved forward to be a part of the offensive near St. Mihiel. Operators were needed at General Pershing’s headquarters within 15 miles of the front lines. Because it was a dangerous mission, the operators could volunteer, but there was no problem. More than enough women wanted the assignment.
General Pershing was among those in the First Army office, and he selected the women he wanted to handle lines of communication. While calls could be made elsewhere, the most important lines were to and from the frontline unit and their commanding officers.
Grace Banker, the head of the Signal Corps Female Operators, and five other women were in the office near St. Mihiel. They worked six-hour shifts—six on and six off, running the switchboard throughout the battle.
Nearing the End
After St. Mihiel, the women were relocated to Souilly, close to where the Meuse-Argonne offensive was taking place. There was so much action via the telephone that six more women were brought to the office.
“Every order for an infantry advance, a barrage preparatory to the taking of a new objective, and in fact for every troop movement came over these ‘fighting lines,’ as we called them,” recalled Grace Banker (Military History Now, April 4, 2016.)
The First Army headquarters were so close to the front that on October 30, 1918, the complex of buildings housing the AEF caught fire. The fire spread to the telephone office, but the operators refused to leave. After several requests that the women get out, an officer arrived and threatened court martial.
With that, the women left. But once the fire was out, they went back in. Two-thirds of the telephone wire connections were destroyed, but the operators went in and worked the calls they could. This was just two weeks prior to the signing of the Armistice.
After the signing, the telephone operators were still needed, so many remained in France for a longer time.
The women who served felt great pride in the role they had played as soldiers. They went through basic training for the Signal Corps at Camp Franklin before departure; took the same military oath that others in the Army did, and they were subject to all the rules of the military, including court martial.
What’s more, the operators who had served valiantly during and after the fire at First Army during the final battles received Distinguished Service Medals for their “untiring devotion…under trying conditions.”
Yet when they arrived home, there were no official discharge papers as proof of service, no victory medals, and no veterans benefits. Suddenly, they were deemed just “civilians.” They were dismissed with “notices of termination.”
Official Army regulations of the time specified that soldiers must be male. Women attached to the Army were “civilian volunteers.” (The Navy and Marine Corps had just begun accepting women in their ranks—see Loretta Walsh. And the Coast Guard permitted two women I World War I.)
The women were angry and felt betrayed. Signal Corps Operator Enid Pooley testified before Congress: “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.”
But it was their member, Merle Egan Anderson, who led the 60-year fight for justice. The women had been given every sign that they were officially soldiers. Anderson was intent on making the government hold true to their promise.
In 1979 the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators finally received the recognition they were due. Only 18 of the women were still living; each was visited by a member of the military who presented their discharge papers specifying they had served honorably and they were given veteran’s status.
Suffrage: Indirect Result
If there was a silver lining to all this, it may have been the fact that President Wilson finally understood that he had to push hard for women’s suffrage. In a speech to Congress, he said:
“We have made partners of the women in this war; shall we admit them only to a partnership of suffering and sacrifice and toll, and not to a partnership of privilege and right?”
The Nineteenth Amendment became part of the U.S. Constitution on August 26, 1920.
Slowly but surely, women have become part of all branches of the military.
To read another story about women sent overseas to help with communications, see “The 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion.”