Friday, December 15, 2023

Female Switchboard Operators Trained in 19C Recruited to Serve in World War I

1918 Back our girls over there United War Work Campaign
 by Clarence F. Underwood, (Painter, Illustrator, 1871-1929)

 After the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, General John Pershing discovered that military communications on the Western Front were in disarray. In response, he called for women to join the U.S. Army Signal Corps & become "switchboard soldiers." At the time, author Elizabeth Cobbs observed, “telephones were the only military technology in which the United States enjoyed clear superiority" & 80 percent of all telephone operators were women. More than 7,600 women applied for the first 100 positions before applications for the newly formed Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit were even printed. 

From the thousands of American women who applied to be "Hello Girls," as they became known colloquially -- all of whom had to be bilingual in English & French -- only 223 were ultimately accepted into the unit. The women of the Signal Corps soon took over the critical role of connecting military telephones across the front, allowing the front lines to communicate quickly with commanders; at the height of the war, they were connecting 150,000 calls a day.

Most of the women accepted into the Signal Corps were already experienced switchboard operators &, after completing Army training in Maryland, the first operators left for Europe in 1918 under the lead of Chief Operator Grace Banker, a Barnard College graduate who worked as a switchboards instructor. Soon, members of the unit were operating the switchboards for the American Expeditionary Forces in Paris & 75 other French locations as well as multiple locations in Britain. By July, the Hello Girls had tripled the number of calls that could be managed by the Army telephone service in France, vastly improving war-front communications.

When Banker arrived with the first team of 33 telephone operators, they were assigned to the American Expeditionary Force Headquarters in Chaumont, France. Later, as the final major Allied offenses of the war approached, Banker was asked to move to the front, along with her five best operators. During the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, equipped with gas masks & helmets, they operated from the trenches under artillery bombing. Banker was later honored with the U.S. Army's Distinguished Service Medal for her services with the First Army headquarters during the St. Mihiel & Meuse-Argonne Offensives. Following the Armistice, Banker continued to work with the Army of Occupation at Coblenz, Germany until she returned home in September 1919.

Shortly after the Armistice, the chief signal officer for the First Army wrote in his final report that "a large part of the success of the communications of this Army is due to... a competent staff of women operators." The women of the Army Signal Corps swore the Army oath, wore regulation uniforms, observed military protocol, & served courageously under often harrowing conditions, yet after the war, the women discovered that U.S. government considered them "civilian" employees. By denying them veteran status, the women who had served were denied veterans benefits, medical care, honorable discharges, military funerals, & even the right to wear their uniforms.

At least 24 bills were introduced to the U.S. Congress over the course of 50 years to have the signal operators' military service officially recognized. It wasn't until 1977, when only eighteen of the original Hello Girls were still alive, that a campaign led by former operator Merle Egan Anderson finally resulted in a bill successfully passing & being signed by President Carter that officially recognizing the veterans' status of the Signal Corps telephone operators. Egan herself finally received her official discharge paper in a ceremony in Washington in 1979 when she was 91 years old.


A Mighty Girl Blog November 28, 2023

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