Number, please? ‘Hello Girls’ answered the call in World War I
History professor Elizabeth Cobbs resurrected the story of women soldiers in WWI with her book “The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers.”
WOODLAND PARK, N.J. – Grace Banker served in some very high places during World War I. For 20 months, she lived like a soldier at a time when the Army didn’t allow women in the ranks.
She wore a U.S. Army uniform with three stripes on her sleeve and carried a helmet and a gas mask to the front lines in France. And like any soldier, Banker had to keep her cool under fire, working the switchboard at Gen. John Pershing’s headquarters amid the thunder of artillery shelling.
In France, she learned to fire a pistol — just in case. And when Pershing led the American Expeditionary Forces through a showdown with the Germans at the Battle of the Meuse-Argonne, Banker was with him, keeping the lines of communication open in the closing campaign of the war.
True to the cause, the Passaic resident didn’t come home right away when the war ended in November of 1918. Banker went to Paris to operate the switchboard at President Woodrow Wilson’s residence during negotiations for the Treaty of Versailles, which set down the terms of the new peace.
Banker was one of 223 women who volunteered for the U.S. Army Signal Corps as telephone switchboard operators. The newspapers dubbed them “The Hello Girls” — a moniker that many of them disliked, but one that stuck.
“She was an extraordinary daughter from Passaic who went on the world stage,” said Mark Auerbach, the city historian. “The telephone was the cutting-edge technology of its time, and good communications saved many lives.”
Five years after the war, on Memorial Day in 1924, Banker donned her Army uniform and stood with Pershing when he came to Passaic to dedicate the Cenotaph in honor of World War I soldiers that stands in Armory Park. Around the same time, Banker married and moved out of Passaic to Scarsdale, New York, packing her uniform, helmet and gas mask into a trunk and taking it with her.
Banker settled down and raised a family in Scarsdale, and her story seemed all but lost to history.
Recently, Banker’s granddaughter, Carolyn Timbie, came to Passaic with her husband, Dustin, to see the house at 227 Van Houten Ave. where Banker grew up. Timbie never met her grandmother, but she has spent much of her time piecing together the story and came to Passaic wanting to know more.
“My grandmother was an amazing woman,” said Timbie, who lives in New Hampshire. “She was intelligent, and independent-minded. I think she figured, ‘I’m going to do my bit to help win the war.’ ”
Timbie recently donated Banker’s Army gear to the World War I Museum in Kansas City, Missouri.
“I wanted to share this with the world because this is an important story,” Timbie said. Seeing her grandmother’s house for the first time added another piece of the puzzle.
“I came to Passaic to get that local connection,” she said. “To take the local history and apply it to the big picture.”
Banker’s name is not on any of the World War I markers in Passaic. But with the centennial there came new interest in the war, and a professor of history at Texas A&M, Elizabeth Cobbs, resurrected the story with her book book “The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers.”
There’s also been an off-Broadway musical by the same name and a documentary.
As America entered the war in 1917, telephone operator was considered “a woman’s job” and fighting a war was seen as the exclusive domain of men. There were debates over whether women could, or should, engage in combat.
Tied to that debate was the fight over women’s suffrage. Women were fully mobilized to support the war but didn’t have the right to vote. Wartime sacrifices laid the moral groundwork for change, but opponents of suffrage still clung to the idea that since women didn’t fight the wars, they shouldn’t be given the vote.
The Signal Corps brought telephone lines to the battlefield, and the Army recognized that the side with better communications enjoyed a huge advantage. Women operators were generally quicker and better skilled than the men of the Signal Corps, so the Army began running newspaper ads seeking volunteers who spoke French and English.
Banker was supremely qualified: She majored in French and history at Barnard, and after graduation she went to work for AT&T. The Army quickly recognized her as among the brightest and the best.
There was no boot camp, but there were background checks and loyalty oaths, and a pledge that all communications were to be kept secret. Banker rose fast and was named chief operator of Unit I, the Hello Girls contingent of seven women switchboard operators who followed Pershing everywhere he went.
“The work was fascinating,” Banker wrote in an article that was later published in Yankee Magazine, in 1974. “Much of it was in codes changed frequently. “Ligny was ‘Waterfall.’ Toul might be ‘Podunk’ one day and ‘Wabash’ the next.”
Although they wore an Army uniform and were subject to court martial, the Hello Girls were considered civilian contractors, not soldiers. So when the war ended there was no Victory Medal for them, or any veterans’ benefits, such as medical care for war-related injuries or the pension.
Congress didn’t rectify that injustice until 1978, when it officially recognized the contributions of the Hello Girls and gave them veterans status. By that time, Grace Banker, who died in 1960, was long gone, and so were most of the Hello Girls.
Now, 100 years after the signing of the Versailles Treaty and in a year when six women are running for president, the push is on to honor the 223 women who joined the U.S. Army Signal Corps. There is a bill in Congress that would bestow on the Hello Girls the nation’s highest civilian award: the Congressional Gold Medal.
The bill was introduced in January and has gained five co-sponsors, including Elizabeth Warren, the senator from Massachusetts who is one of the women running for president. Ultimately, the bill would require at least 67 co-sponsors, two-thirds of the Senate, to be adopted.
A prime backer is the World War I Centennial Commission, which was set up by Congress. The executive director, Daniel S. Dayton, recently wrote to the Senate urging adoption.
“The Hello Girls are gone but their courage and competence formed part of the American resolve in World War 1,” Dayton wrote. “The centennial is the best time to go back and recognize those who answered the call in the past but were not singled out for recognition they deserved.”
First women soldiers
In her book, Cobbs makes the case that the 223 women who volunteered for the Signal Corps were America’s first female soldiers. Their battlefield heroics proved to be crucial in the political battle over the 19th Amendment, and eventually opened doors for women to enter the military, she said.
“First of all, they provided an invaluable service,” Cobbs said. “They connected 26 million phones calls under wartime conditions. There are studies that showed that women took 10 seconds to connect a call, whereas it took the average doughboy 60 seconds. And they were pioneers for women in our armed services.”
The work was dangerous and exhausting, with switchboards set up in shacks that drew German artillery fire. The Hello Girls worked with little sleep amid constant bombardment, helmets and gas masks flung over their seats, just in case.
The barracks where they lived “were dingy affairs set down in a seat of mud on the village,” Banker told Yankee Magazine. “They looked dilapidated enough. Instead of glass windows they had frames with a sort of oiled paper. In the daytime they could be pushed out, something like a chicken coop. At night they were hooked down and covered with black cloth called ‘camouflage’ lest a stray beam of light announce our presence to the raiding German planes.”
Another constant peril was influenza, which claimed the lives of two Hello Girls. Yet by war’s end, the Hello Girls had handled 26 million calls and the Army was pleased.
Banker’s efforts did not go entirely unrewarded. As chief operator of Unit 1, she led an elite unit of seven telephone operators who followed Pershing to the front during the Allied push to win the war. A year later, women won the right to vote when Tennessee became the 36th state to ratify the 19th Amendment.
They did the job with little sleep and in the heat of battle, connecting calls rapid-fire from headquarters to the trenches and proving that women could perform as well as men in combat. In 1919, the Army awarded Banker the Distinguished Service Medal, its highest honor for a civilian.
The war as seen through Banker’s eyes is a big part of Cobbs’ book. Banker kept a diary of her wartime experience, which technically was against Army regulations. When the war ended, Banker stuffed the 92-page diary into the locker with her uniform, helmet, gas mask and everything else she brought home.
Cobbs went searching for descendants of the Hello Girls a few years ago and spoke to Timbie’s father-law. Much to her delight, she learned that Banker had kept a diary.
“I already had the memoirs of two other women who were Hello Girls,” Cobbs said. “When I found Grace’s diary, I knew I had a story.”
Richard Cowen, North Jersey Record
This article was originally posted here.