The Hello Girls, the Voice of the U.S. Army in France

The first women recruited by the U.S. Army were equipped with helmets and gas masks just like their male counterparts, but they were armed with telephones. Some 223 French-speaking American women served as switchboard operators during World War I. Nicknamed the “Hello Girls,” they acted as a link between the front line and the rear guard and between French and American units. A musical comedy will be paying homage to them at 59E59 Theaters in New York City from November 13 through December 22.
A group of American telephone operators preparing to ship off for France in 1918. Courtesy of Robert, Grace, and Carolyn Timbie

The memories of the Battle of Château-Thierry in July 1918 include the men from the 3rd U.S. Infantry Division courageously holding the Marne River and their victory against German troops 50 miles from Paris. But few remember the switchboard operators who passed on their messages. During the fighting, one such operator received a call for help from a group of U.S. soldiers trapped under fire from the Germans. She connected the call to a battery of French artillery who came to the rescue and less than two minutes later.

The telephone had only recently been invented when the United States declared war on the German Empire on April 6, 1918. And yet it was the leading means of communication on the battlefield. The telegraph could not carry voices and the first radio transmitters were too bulky. The field telephone did not need a battery and could be plugged in anywhere. Between its headquarters in Chaumont and the 8,000 receivers located on the front, the U.S. Army laid down more than 22,600 miles of telephone cables.

The armed forces needed switchboard operators in the field for connecting calls. But General Pershing, head of the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe, refused to employ French people. Very few of them spoke English, and connecting a call took almost a whole minute compared with 12 second for an experienced American operator. The monolingual French operators and male U.S. soldiers were “hopelessly inadequate,” wrote Pershing in a telegram to Washington. On November 8, 1917, he asked for a unit of French-speaking American operators to be recruited and trained in the United States before being sent to France.

“Perfectly Bilingual” Recruits

More than 7,600 women volunteered. Candidates had to be between 23 and 33, be “perfectly fit,” and “perfectly bilingual.” French tests were also obligatory, and operators had to simultaneously interpret a fictional conversation between an American officer and his French counterpart. A first group was selected and included Grace Banker, who had studied French and history at Barnard College and worked at the headquarters of the American Telephone & Telegraph Company (AT&T) in New York. Louise LeBreton was a student at Berkeley and worked part-time as a secretary at the French Consulate in San Francisco. Madeleine Batta was born in Belgium and had a Master’s degree in mathematics. Anita Brown was a French teacher in Los Angeles. And Chicago-born Helen Orb had studied sculpture at the Beaux-Arts school in Paris before the war.

The press compared the U.S. Army’s first female recruits to Joan of Arc, fearlessly leaving to fight and save France. Propaganda posters depicted them in the style of the Statue of Liberty holding a telephone set instead of the Declaration of Independence. But the Army was not ready to welcome women into its ranks. Certain members of the War Department believed enrolling female soldiers was contrary to nature. As a result, the operators were housed away from the military bases and obliged to buy their own uniforms.

After a month of training, the first contingent of operators left the port of Hoboken, New Jersey, on March 2, 1918. Some 7,000 doughboys travelled with them aboard the Celtic, a British cruise liner converted to be able to transport troops. The ship stopped in Halifax, Canada, before setting sail west to Southampton and finally arriving in Le Havre.

36,000 Calls Daily

The Hello Girls were posted to Paris, at the headquarters of the American forces in Chaumont, or on the front. “Some operators were so close to the fighting they could hear the cannon fire in their headsets,” writes U.S. historian Elizabeth Cobbs in The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers (2017). With the arrival of “experienced personnel,” the number of calls connected every day went from 13,000 in January 1918 to 36,000 in July of the same year.

The operators proved their skills at the Battle of Cantigny from May 28 to 31, 1918, which was the first American offensive in Europe. This was followed by the Battle of Château-Thierry, the Battle of Saint-Mihiel, and the Meuse-Argonne Offensive in October 1918. The operators monitored the progress of the fighting, working in 12-hour shifts on the switchboard. The towns, villages, and localities all had codenames such as Montana, Buster, Bonehead, Wabash, and Wilson. The frequency of the calls, followed by lines that rang unanswered, were the only indications of how the battles were going.

Pershing demanded 130 extra operators in September 1918, then 40 more every 6 weeks throughout 1919. And the news that the war had ended arrived via telephone: Austria surrendered on October 28, followed by Germany on November 11. The fighting was over but the Hello Girls remained in Europe, helping in the effort to repatriate U.S. soldiers and occupy Germany, and to organize the Paris Peace Conference. The last operators left France in January 1920.

A Bitter Welcome Home

Seven months later on August 26, 1920, women in America were given the right to vote. Around the same time, the operators learned the U.S. Army was refusing to pay them the pensions they deserved, judging that the Hello Girls served as civilian employees and therefore did not qualify for veteran status. Grace Banker received the Distinguished Service Medal, the highest award attributed by the armed forces, but this changed nothing. A law recognizing the service of women veterans was brought before Congress 24 times between 1927 and 1977, and the War Department opposed every draft. “Recruiting women was one thing,” writes Elizabeth Cobb. “Recognizing their service was another.”

The Hello Girls were finally granted veteran status in 1978. Only 31 operators were still alive at the time. Merle Egan, originally from Helena, Montana, received her official discharge certificate at the age of 91. Speaking to the journalists who attended the ceremony, she simply said “The army has finally admitted we are legitimate.”

The Hello Girls, from
November 13 through December 22, 2018, at 59E59 Theatres in New York City.

The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers by Elizabeth Cobbs, Harvard University Press, 2017.