By Senior Master Sgt. Jerry Hanes, 341st Missile Maintenance Squadron
/ Published March 02, 2007
MALMSTROM AIR FORCE BASE, Mont. -- It was the year 1917; the Air Force was in its infant stages as a member of the U.S. Army's Signal Corps, Aviation section. Names of some of our founding pioneers were Billy Mitchell, Charles Chandler and Vernon Burge. These men set precedence with the leadership of that era in that the Air Army too, deserved a place in the defense of the United States and the world.
During this same year, within the same U.S. Army Signal Corps, was the birth of another unit. This unit, like the Aviation section, was setting precedence that they, too, deserved a place in the defense of the United States and the world. Names of some of these founding pioneers were Grace Banker, Oleda Christides and Merle Egan Anderson. These women, along with 447 other females, would become the Army's first female combat unit and they were known as the Hello Girls.
In 1917, Brig. Gen. John Pershing acquired permission to recruit telephone operators and he handed the task to the Signal Corp to establish the unit. They promptly began an advertisement campaign in all the major newspapers in the U.S. More than 7,000 applications were receive but only 450 operators were accepted, according to the U.S. Signal Corps museum.
The recruits were sent to Fort Franklin (present day Fort Meade, Md.) for military training, and radio and switchboard operator school, which was taught by commercial telephone companies. The schooling did not pose a problem to the recruits as most of the Hello Girls had been recruited from American Telephone and Telegraph Company anyway and were former switchboard operators. Upon graduating from school, they were required to purchase their own uniforms and were issued dog tags and gas masks. The uniforms of the Hello Girls were navy blue at first, and later they were changed to a version of olive-drab green. They wore campaign hats with orange hat cords and also wore the garrison hats. As far as insignia, they wore the Signal Corps collar brass of the crossed flags.
The operators received promotion and carried positions like anyone else in the Army, at that time. The "Stars and Stripes" on March 29, 1918 identified the rank of the Hello Girls as follows:
"Their ranks were identified by white Armbands. An Operator First Class wore the white armband with an outlined blue Telephone mouthpiece. A Supervisor, who rates as a platoon sergeant, wears the same armband with a wreath around the mouthpiece. A Chief Operator or "Top" had the emblem with the mouthpiece, the wreath and blue lighting flashes shooting out above the receiver."
As time went on, different variations (arm patches) of the rank were created in olive-drab green.
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.
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.
History records show that throughout the years, the Hello Girls petitioned Congress to receive their veteran status. One in particular, Merle Egan Anderson of Seattle (formally a resident of Helena, Mont.), took the lead to gain the Hello Girls their veteran's status. Ms. Anderson was working in Helena for Mountain States Telephone and Telegraph Co. before going to France. She returned to Montana after her duty was over. Her efforts paid off 60 years after World War I ended with the signing of a bill by President Jimmy Carter in 1977. The Hello Girls had finally earned their status as U.S. veterans. Unfortunately, when that day did come, only 50 of the 450 Hello Girls were still alive. Those 50 were awarded their Honorable discharges and World War I Victory Medals.
Like the more than 16 million males in World War I, these 450 Hello Girls answered the call to duty and served a vital part in the outcome. These women had proven they, too, deserved a place in the defense of the United States and the world. They displayed a driving perseverance and their persistence earned them the right to officially become veterans of the "war to end all wars."
Women have been a vital and needed part of the military for a very long time. Because of the endeavors of early military women pioneers, such as the Hello Girls, nursing corps and some Navy female yeoman, doors were opened and paths were paved for the women in our military today.