During World War I, around 7000 U.S. and Canadian women telephone operators volunteered, but only 447 were selected, to serve with the Army Signal Corps in France and England, becoming the Army’s first female combat unit.
Although they received military training and were issued dog tags and gas masks, the women had to buy their own uniforms and were expected to follow the same rules and regulations as their male counterparts. They even underwent inspections by General Pershing, who stated:
“The part played by women in winning the war has been an important one,” he wrote in General Orders No. 73, April 30, 1919. “Whether ministering to the sick or wounded, or engaged in the innumerable activities requiring your aid, the cheerfulness, loyalty and efficiency which have characterized your efforts deserve the highest praise.”
In March, 1918, the first contingent of 33 Hello Girls were sent to France and, like the other Hello Girls that were to follow, they were sent to numerous locations throughout the war. A small group of six operators (Esther Fresnel, Helen Hill, Berthe Hunt, Marie Large and Suzanne Prevot) led by Chief Operator Grace Banker was sent forward to the front and assigned to the First American Army headquarters. They arrived just in time to be part of the Sept. 12, 1918, push in the Battle of St. Mihiel. For eight days, these six Hello Girls worked around the clock handling communications on eight lines. On Sept. 26, 1918, they were chosen for a new offensive and reassigned to the front, which at that time, was northwest of Verdun, according to the “Stars and Stripes” account of the events.
During their time at the front, the Hello Girls took on incoming fire like many others soldiers. Their barracks caught fire from a bombardment and they were threatened from Chaumont headquarters, via the telephones line they were connecting to the front, with court martial for disobeying orders to leave their switchboards immediately. They left, but came back within an hour to man the remaining one third of the switchboards still operational from the attack, according to a recount of the events from Oleda Christides daughter, Michelle. Many of the Hello Girls, including Grace Banker, worked long after the Armistice, serving at the Paris Peace Commission and even in occupied German territories.. Only one actually died while on duty — Cora H. Bartlett from Hillsdale, Michigan — who came down with the Spanish Influenza in the Spring of 1919 and failed to recover. She was buried with full military honors in France.
When the Hello Girls call to duty ended in the “war to end all wars,” they returned to the states. Upon returning, they requested their veteran’s status, honorable discharges and WW I Victory Medals. But they were turned down because regulations addressed males, not females, and there was a consensus that the Hello Girls were more civilian volunteers then military members.
This slight was rectified 60 years later when Jimmy Carter signed S. Bill 1414 recognizing their service. Unfortunately by then, only about 50 of the women were still alive. Those that were received Honorable discharges and World War I Victory Medals.
For more information, see:
If you have access to a university campus, Proquest Congressional, provides information about the Hello Girls in a May 25, 1977 Congressional Hearing on Recognition for Purposes of VA Benefits, including an excerpt from ‘I was a “hello Girl” by Grace Bannek Paddock, the highest ranking member.
Senior Master Sgt. Jerry Hanes, “Hello girls set stage for women in the military”, March 2, 2007.
Elizabeth M. Collins, “World War I’s Hello Girls: Paving the way for women in the U.S. Army”, Soldiers magazine.
Also see Dennis Skupinski, “Michigan’s WW1 Centennial November 2013 “Hello Girls”“, via YouTube, November 18, 2013.