These Women Answered the Call in WWI. Should They Receive the Gold Medal?

ceremony honoring World War I-era Hello Girls
Krystal Cordero and Carl Rinaldi of American Legion Post 238 in Woodland Park lay flowers at the ceremony honoring Grace Banker in Passaic on June 8, 2024. Banker was one of 223 women employed as telephone operators by the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War I. Known as The Hello Girls, the telephone operators are considered America's first women soldiers. (Richard Cowen/

One hundred years ago, a huge crowd gathered in Armory Park in Passaic to hear U.S. Army General John J. Pershing praise the men who fought so bravely in World War I.

Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces that defeated Germany and its allies to end World War I, came to Passaic on Memorial Day to dedicate the city’s new war monument, the Cenotaph.

“Men of Passaic…ever ready to bear arms in defense of the country, they have always endured the greatest sacrifices and have ever stood ready to render the full measure of their devotion,” Pershing told the crowd, as reported by the Passaic Daily News.

Pershing understandably paid tribute to the men of Passaic, 74 of whom went to Europe in World War I and didn’t return. But standing with Pershing on the dais that day in an Army uniform was a woman whose service would open doors for others but whose contribution is all but lost to history.

Grace Banker was from Passaic, and she came home from the war with the Distinguished Service Medal, a helmet, and a gas mask, but unlike the boys, she had no discharge papers to qualify for veterans benefits. She went to the front lines and risked her life, just like the boys, but for 60 years following the war, the Department of Defense didn’t see it that way.

Banker was the chief of the first unit of civilian switchboard operators that the U.S. Army Signal Corps sent to the front lines in France in 1918, as Pershing was leading his green, largely untested troops on the Meuse-Argonne offensive, the closing campaign of the war.

Dubbed “The Hello Girls, “Banker was one of 223 women split into six units that the Army sent to France to operate switchboards, often under battlefield conditions. By the Army’s estimate, the Hello Girls handled 26 million calls, with Banker’s unit following Pershing everywhere he went.

But when the war ended, there was no victory parade or veteran’s benefits for the Hello Girls. Signed as civilian contractors, the Army refused to recognize them as soldiers, a snub that was not rectified until 1979, when President Carter signed a bill granting them veteran status. By then, most of the Hello Girls were dead, including Banker, who died in 1960.

“They were the first women soldiers,” said Army Col. Linda Jantzen, a retired member of the U.S. Signal Corps. “But it wasn’t until 1979 when these women finally got their discharge papers. Why did it take so long? Because the Army regs said, only men can be soldiers.”

One hundred years after Pershing’s visit, Jantzen stood with Banker’s granddaughter, Carolyn Timbie, in Armory Park on a mission of their own: to get Congress to recognize The Hello Girls by awarding the Congressional Gold Medal, the nation’s highest award given to civilians. Timbie heads the lobbying effort and recently organized a small gathering in Armory Park to remember Banker and raise awareness of the campaign.

“It’s a story that needs to be told,” said Timbie, who never met her grandmother but learned all about her by reading Banker’s war-time diary. The gathering drew about 25 people to Armory Park on a recent Saturday.

“My mother said that Grace Banker never talked about her service,” Timbie said. “But the interesting thing is she kept a trunk. So we have her trench helmet, her arm band, we kept one of her uniforms. We have her letters. So clearly, it was important to her.”

There’s nothing in the news accounts of that Memorial Day 1924 to indicate that Banker spoke at the dedication. All the speeches that day were given by the men, among them, Pershing and New Jersey Governor George S. Silzer, who recognized the “brave boys who in time of war shouldered the gun and went forth in defense of our country.”

About 35,000 women served in World War I in some capacity, mostly as civilian nurses. But it wasn’t until after World War II, in 1948, that the Army first allowed women to enlist.

Passaic’s city historian, Mark S. Auerbach, said Banker lived in a house on Van Houten Avenue in Passaic, graduated from Passaic High School, and then got a degree from Barnard College. She was working as a telephone operator at A T & T headquarters in New York City when, at Pershing’s request, the Army put out an ad looking for telephone operators who were fluent in French and English. In those days, switchboard operation was considered a “woman’s job.”

“Pershing knew that women were better phone operators than men,” said Mark S. Auerbach, the Passaic city historian who attended the ceremony. “And that would free up more men for battle. They were in the same danger as soldiers. They had to hunker down during the German artillery bombardments. Their job was exceedingly important. They handled millions of calls.”

Timbie said only about 20 Hello Girls were still living when Congress granted them veteran status, making them eligible for medical benefits. Their story came to light only recently, with the publication of a book, The Hello Girls, by Elizabeth Cobbs, a professor of American History at Texas A & M. A year later, a documentary followed.

Then came The Hello Girls, an off- Broadway musical performed in May at the Kennedy Center in Washington. Timbie brought cast member Senna Prasatthong and Chas Rittenhouse, an actor, to play Pershing to the ceremony in Armory Park on June 8.

Staff Sgt. Jake McDonnell, a bugler from the U.S. Army Marching Band, played taps for Grace Banker as two veterans, Krystal Cordero and Carl Rinaldi of American Legion Post 238 in Woodland Park, laid down a wreath. Passaic’s representative in Congress, Rep. Bill Pascrell, sent a declaration recognizing Banker and the Hello Girls.

Timbie said her group has gotten 57 U.S. Senators to co-sponsor The Hello Girls Congressional Gold Medal Act, a bill introduced by Sen. Tom Hester, a Democrat from Montana. The legislation needs a two-thirds majority (67 votes) in the Senate and a simple majority of the 435-member U.S. House of Representatives to pass.

The Congressional Gold Medal is the nation’s highest award given to civilians. George Washington was the first recipient, and Pershing was awarded the Gold Medal in 1946.

Other recipients with New Jersey connections include aviator Charles Lindbergh, singer Frank Sinatra, and Larry Doby, the Paterson native who followed Jackie Robinson into Major League Baseball and broke the color line in the American League In 1947.

In recent years, Congress has sought to recognize women’s groups that have been overlooked. In 2009, Congress awarded the gold medal to the Women’s Air Force Service Pilots (WASP), a civilian pilot’s organization that flew military aircraft in non-combat situations during World War II. In 2020, Congress awarded the gold medal to Rosie the Riveters, honoring all the women who worked in industrial jobs during World War II to support the war effort.

And in 2022, President Biden signed legislation awarding the gold medal to the U.S. Army 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, honoring the all-Black women’s unit sent to Europe during World War II to relieve a huge backlog of undelivered mail.

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