WWI Signal Corps Women Could Be Recognized With Highest Civilian Award

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The Hello Girls, who served as telephone operators during World War I, were the focus of the Women’s History Month event March 15, 2018 at Fort Benning, Georgia. Col. Jacqueline Emanuel, the Maneuver Center of Excellence Staff Judge Advocate, spoke about the Hello Girls to an audience of Soldiers and civilians. (Courtesy photo)
The Hello Girls, who served as telephone operators during World War I, were the focus of the Women’s History Month event March 15, 2018 at Fort Benning, Georgia. Col. Jacqueline Emanuel, the Maneuver Center of Excellence Staff Judge Advocate, spoke about the Hello Girls to an audience of Soldiers and civilians. (Courtesy photo)

This article written by Amanda Dolasinski originally appeared on the Military Officers of America Association (MOAA) website.

American servicewomen essential in connecting troops to allied forces during World War I could be honored with Congress' highest civilian award.

The women -- nicknamed the Hello Girls -- worked on switchboards at military outposts, quickly connecting and communicating with their French counterparts. They've fought for decades to have their service recognized with veteran status and benefits.

Carolyn Timbie, granddaughter of Grace Banker, chief operator of the Hello Girls, said she is proud of the women's service.

"Their story was tucked away for 100 years, and to think that they might be honored in 2018 with a Congressional Gold Medal for their service to our country is overwhelming," Timbie said.

The Hello Girls were thrust into war when the U.S. realized it was unprepared to fight a technologically modern conflict overseas and called on AT&T to provide equipment and trained personnel to fill the Army Signal Corps in France.

American troops were struggling, unable to communicate in French with their counterparts, and also failing to connect calls rapidly. On average, it took a male operator 60 seconds to make a connection -unacceptably slow for operations calls between command outposts and the front lines.

Gen. John Pershing, head of the American Expeditionary Forces in 1917, understood the critical role telephones would play on the battlefield and loaded telephone operating equipment with him as he sailed for Europe. A few months into his command, he wrote to the War Department requesting a force of women telephone operators, who were able to make connections in about 10 seconds.

Women were recruited through newspaper advertisements placed by the War Department. More than 7,000 women applied to be switchboard operators, but just 223 were selected, according to historical reports. Operators had to be bilingual in English and French.

The women took the Army oath and were ranked. They were the first women to serve as soldiers in non-medical roles.

The first contingent of women operators began their duties in France March 24, 1918 - under constant German bombings.

Their arrival nearly tripled telephone call capacity in France - from 13,000 calls per day to 36,000 calls per day.

When the war ended Nov. 11, 1918, the female operators had connected about 26 million calls for the American Expeditionary Forces.

"The part played by women in winning the war has been an important one," Pershing wrote in General Orders April 30, 1919.

Two of the women died in France, victims of the influenza pandemic that killed more American soldiers than combat operations. And because of their critical logistics role, these women were among the last American forces to return home.

Yet, they were denied veteran status and benefits.

In March 1918, the legal counsel of the Army ruled internally that the women were not soldiers, but rather contract employees. For the next 60 years, female veterans led by Merle Egan from Montana petitioned Congress more than 50 times for their recognition.

Signal Corps telephone operators were finally granted veteran status in 1979. At that time, just 33 of the operators who served during World War I were alive to receive their Victory Medals and discharge papers.

Oleda Joure Christides, of Marine City, Michigan, reportedly kissed her discharge paperwork. She wanted a flag on her coffin, according to reports.

Historian and author Cokie Roberts said it's about time the women are recognized.

"Without these women on the front lines, communication between headquarters and the field would have been all but impossible," Roberts said. "They served nobly and bravely, often winning military honors for their efforts. And then they returned home to be told they hadn't really performed the remarkable tasks they had accomplished. Many decades later they were finally recognized. Now, 100 years after World War I it's time to give them their due in awarding them the Congressional Medal of Honor." Roberts' mother, former U.S. Rep. Lindy Boggs, sponsored a 1977 bill to obtain veteran status for the Hello Girls.

In July 2009, a law signed by President Barack Obama awarded the Congressional Gold Medal to Women's Air Force Service Pilots, known as WASPs. That sparked debate for Hello Girls to receive similar recognition.

The medal was proposed by U.S. Sens. Jon Tester, D-Mont., and Dean Heller, R-Nev.

"The Hello Girls were faster and more accurate than any enlisted man at connecting men on the battlefield with military leaders," said Tester, ranking member of the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee. "They took the Army oath, their bravery and composure helped our allied forces win the war but they were still denied the veteran status and benefits they deserve. They blazed a new path for women on the front lines in France, and the Congressional Gold Medal will honor their service as well as their fight for recognition."

The Hello Girls stepped up to get the job done, said Heller, who also serves on the Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee.

"They pioneered the way for female veterans," he said. "And, like all of our nation's servicemembers, they should be recognized for their bravery and contributions."

This article, "World War I Signal Corps Women Could Be Recognized With Highest Civilian Award," originally appeared on the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA) website. MOAA is the nation's largest and most influential association of military officers.

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