“Unable to get timely and accurate battle reports, AEF commanding general John J. Pershing urged Washington to recruit American telephone operators. And since stateside switchboards were run almost entirely by females; Blackjack’s phone jockeys would be women.”
By Mitchell Yockelson
WOMEN NOW SERVE on the frontlines alongside men in the 21st Century U.S. military. Yet surprisingly, females also played a key role on the battlefields of the First World War nearly 100 years ago.
They didn’t wear khaki uniforms, nor did they carry rifles, but during the 1918 American Meuse-Argonne offensive, which raged for the final 47 days of the conflict, a handful of women telephone operators from the United States quite literally held the war’s last campaign in the palms of their hands. They were known as the “Hello Girls” and this is their forgotten story.
Ever since arriving in France in 1917, the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) was plagued with communications problems. The military telephone system used by the U.S. contingent was provided by the French and staffed by local switchboard operators. Not surprisingly, the language barrier caused headaches.
Unable to get timely and accurate battle reports, AEF commander General John J. Pershing urged Washington to recruit American telephone operators, particularly bi-lingual ones to route calls. And since stateside switchboards were run almost entirely by females; all of Blackjack’s phone jockeys would be women.
Answering the Call
Women from across the United States eagerly signed up for the newly established Female Telephone Operators Unit; few had the French language skills. The U.S. Division of Women’s War Work, Committee on Public Information, sought to find qualified candidates among those of French descent from Canada and Louisiana. More than 300 applied, only six met all the requirements.
The U.S. Army Signal Corps had better luck and by the spring of 1918 it had received more than 7,600 applications. Eventually, nearly 500 were inducted. A full 223 volunteers were sent overseas, with the rest staying behind in reserve.
To qualify as a telephone operator, applicants had to be fluent in French, know how to operate a switchboard and be in good physical condition. Before each candidate was approved, she was put through a rigorous psychological test to see if she could handle the pressure of a job that might require answering and transmitting messages at a rapid pace. And since operators would be privy to classified information such as troop movements, each was investigated by the U.S. Secret Service to ensure loyalty. Once accepted into service, operators trained in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Philadelphia and Atlantic City. They became affectionately known as “Hello Girls.”
When Pershing set up the First Army headquarters at the village of Souilly to direct the planned Meuse-Argonne offensive, he selected seven of the women to handle the lines of communication. Each was trained to follow their commander’s orders to the letter. Pershing’s calls always got priority – protocol demanded that the general’s line must be connected within a half-second, even if it meant abruptly cutting off other conversations in the process.
The Hello Girls were in charge of two different switchboards: one for making local and long-distance logistical calls, and the other for messages between frontline units and the commanding officers who directed their movements.
“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,” the chief operator recalled. “These wires connected the front up with the generals and made it possible for the latter to know exactly what was going on at any moment and to direct operations accordingly. It was at the operating board, then, that we seven girls were put when we went into the Argonne.”
Mrs. Berthe M. Hunt of Berkeley, California, recalled of their arrival:
When we arrived on September 26th, we found ourselves in a French camp that had been used for over four years, including the period of the famous Verdun drive. The barracks were flimsy things that had been lined with old newspapers and maps to keep out the cold. The Y. W. C. A. helped us out by giving us a blanket each, a rug, oilcloth and other comforts. In fact, our sitting room (which we acquired later) was furnished with a piano and other things taken from Boche dugouts in the vicinity.
Esther Fresnel, from New York, wrote her parents about her life in France. “We worked day and night, six hours at a stretch, and then ran home to snatch a few hours’ sleep, then [went] back to work.”
Berthe Hunt remembered that it was “most thrilling to sit at that board and feel the importance of it.”
Grace Banker, another New Yorker who served as the chief operator, hated being away from the switchboard.
“Soon after 2 a.m., I was back in the office with the girls who had left on the earlier shift the night before,” Grace recalled. “No one could tell what might happen next; it was like an exciting game—and I couldn’t leave.” Banker would eventually be awarded the Distinguished Service Medal for her work in France.
Often artillery barrages and thunderstorms made the phone lines inoperable, flaring the tempers of the devoted staff. Not even a fire in the switchboard office, could drive the operators from their posts. It took direct orders from army brass to make them evacuate the burning building. After an hour they returned to the smoky room and continued fielding calls.
When the war ended, the Hello Girls were disbanded and shipped home — their contribution to the Allied war effort was quickly forgotten. Although Pershing considered them “real soldiers,” a moniker they earned through long hours of important work, none of the more than 200 American women who served overseas with the Female Telephone Operators Unit were considered military personnel and were thus denied benefits. It would take one Hello Girl, Merle Egan-Anderson of Helena, Montana, decades of lobbying before Congress finally bestowed veterans status onto the section in 1978. A Hello Girl uniform on exhibit at the U.S. Army Signal Museum in Ft. Gordon, Georgia may be the only lasting tribute to their service.
Mitchell Yockelson is the author of the new book Forty-Seven Days: How Pershing’s Warriors Came of Age to Defeat the German Army in World War I. A recipient of the Army Historical Foundation’s Distinguished Writing Award, Yockelson is an investigative archivist at the National Archives and Records Administration, as well as a former professor of military history at the United States Naval Academy. He currently teaches at Norwich University.