Alaska History Day Project introduces us to The Hello Girls

Published: 15 May 2024

By Lynn Chavez, Whitestone Training Center, Alaska
Special to the Doughboy Foundation website

AK Hello Girls Project header

Whitestone Training Center, Alaska middle school students Brady Seeger, Valerie Greenleaf, Amber Baranoski, and Rene Greenleaf (left) in their Hello Girls costumes for their Junior Group Performance in the Alaska state affiliate contest, the qualifier for National History Day. The team will be performing their composition on how the WWI Hello Girls (right) were a “Turning Point in History” in the 2024 National History Day contest June 9-13 at the University of Maryland, College Park.

“Hey, what rhymes with ‘experts’?”
“Flirts – squirts – skirts?” 
“Yes, that’s it! Skirts!” 

“We have made history
Helped the Allies secure victory
We are experts; we’re wearing blue skirts
And we did our bit in serving Over There!”

It is the beginning of March 2024, and four Alaskan students are creating a project for Alaska History Day. Amber works on a song parody, telling the story of the Hello Girls to the tune of George Cohen’s iconic WWI song, “Over There.” Valerie rhymes lyrics for the verse, while Brady tracks down sources to cite in the lengthy Annotated Bibliography, and Rene edits Scene 3 of the script. Though it’s a cold Spring day, minus 30 degrees below zero outside, ideas are sparking as these four students create their Junior Group Performance for the Alaska state affiliate contest, the qualifier for National History Day.

Several of the resources used by the Whitestone Training Center team to develop their performance project.

In celebration of its 50th anniversary, the 2024 theme for National History Day is “Turning Points in History.” What an incredible example of a turning point in history! These few remarkable women caused lasting change by serving as switchboard operators close to the battlefield, allowing secure telephone communication to assist Allied victory. Their patriotism and efforts also challenged the order of the day regarding young women’s accepted roles in society, and motivated President Wilson’s change of heart about advocating for Women’s Suffrage.

Accounts detailing The Hello Girls’ story from recruitment, perilous Atlantic crossing, dangerous duty stations, and postwar struggles is well told in several recently published books: “The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers” by Dr. Elizabeth Cobbs, “Switchboard Soldiers” by Jennifer Chiaverini, and “Grace Banker and Her Hello Girls Answer the Call: The Heroic Story of WWI Telephone Operators” by Claudia Friddell. Their story is being shared at the Library of Congress, several WWI history blogs, an Amazon Prime documentary, and even on stage with “The Hello Girls” Musical by Cara Reichel and Peter Mills.

It seems that, after 100 years, the story of these previously “unsung heroes” is being sung. We feel privileged to be a part of that story-telling movement through our National History Day group performance.

Honoring “The Hello Girls” in the Capitol

Fast forward to mid-April, and it’s announced that their Junior Performance won! Amber, Brady, Rene and Valerie were selected to represent Alaska in the 2024 National History Day contest on June 9-13 at the University of Maryland, College Park, near Washington, D.C. The girls are excited about the win and hope to make it to finals at NHD so that more people can hear their story.

As preparation for Nationals is underway, the United States World War I Centennial Commission and the Doughboy Foundation asked us to write an article about how we found out about The Hello Girls, the significance of their story in history and what their sacrifice means to us on a personal level. Hopefully, these discoveries will draw attention to The Hello Girls Congressional Gold Medal Act currently being considered in Congress.

Researching The Hello Girls: Women Switchboard Operators of WWI

Earlier in the school year, as Amber created her exhibit for our school’s History Open House about Bell’s telephone invention, she realized how important the additional technology of the switchboard was in revolutionizing telephone usage. In her research about the nationwide exchange systems and operators, she came across an article about The Hello Girls.

Hey, have you heard about these ladies? Wait – there were American women soldiers in France in World War ONE? Did you know women were in the Army back before they could even vote?

Delving into the research, the girls connected with the challenge that those other young women faced 100 years ago when they answered the call to serve in the Army. Beyond adventure, these switchboard operators were stirred with a purpose to do their part to “make the world safe for democracy” in a time when they didn’t even enjoy the full rights of American citizenship.

The Whitestone Training Center middle school team doing online research for their National History Day performance project about The Hello Girls.

Following where their curiosity led, many remarkable stories emerged. Names like Grace Banker, Berthe Hunt, Janet Jones, Merle Egan, Edmee Leroux, Louise LeBreton and so many others became familiar. They were young, some were beautiful, some had college degrees, and many were helping support their families by working in city exchanges. Operating the switchboard was an art, the job to route calls from end to end was probably much more difficult than it looks. As young patriots, 7600 women answered ads in newspapers recruiting young, healthy women who were fluent in English, French, and switchboard operation. They wanted to “do their bit” to ease the burden of soldiers fighting with the AEF.

Why is their story significant?

The Army didn’t have the legal framework to induct women, as the Navy and Marine Corp did, but General Pershing recognized that he needed expert, bilingual switchboard operators from home – and that meant he needed women in the army. These ladies showed up for it! They set aside their personal plans, purchased expensive uniforms with their own money, traveled away from home in many cases for the first time, and volunteered to give their all. They received little pay, but still took on responsibility and worked around the clock at great risk. Officially, they were the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit. Their duty was to operate switchboard exchange hubs, deployed to various stations as the Signal Corp crisscrossed France with thousands of miles of telephone line. They facilitated secure, real-time communication from the battlefield, coordinated supply deliveries, translated urgent messages, and kept up the morale of American Doughboys as they answered “with a smile in their voice.” They proved women could perform dangerous, technical and clandestine duties under oath.

One of the most compelling turning points the students uncovered was the change in Brigadier General Edgar Russel’s view of the women switchboard operators. In 1917, when the recommendation to recruit women came up, he stated: “I will not be responsible for a lot of American girls in France during wartime conditions.” However, after the Armistice, he wrote a gushing letter to the Signal Corps women, who had been directly under his command. “On the occasion of…the armistice… I desire … to express to you the satisfaction with which I and the officers associated with me have observed the quality of your work in these past months. … I congratulate you on the large part you have had in our glorious victory. Women telephone operators…in service with the American Expeditionary Forces had no precedent, and for this reason, the experiment was watched with unusual interest. …By your ability, efficiency, devotions to duty and the irreproachable and businesslike conduct of your affairs, you … have set a standard of excellence…which has been responsible…for our success.

What Happened to Them After the War?

The story gets even more moving after The Hello Girls returned home. Some suffered the debilitating effects of tuberculosis contracted in France, and two had died of influenza during the war. When the returning heroes sought medical help at a veteran’s hospital or applied for other benefits, they were denied. Commanders who had told them, “You’re in the Army now!” afterwards denied that they had ever been in the military. The Hello Girls quietly resumed their lives, but the denial must have been dispiriting. Except for a few who appealed on their behalf, most people ignored their service. One Hello Girl decided not to remain silent, and led the charge to petition Congress for over 60 years for their rightful Veterans status, discharge papers, and victory medals. Eventually she was heard.

Rehearsal, rehearsal, and more rehearsal prepared the Whitestone Training Center middle school team for their winning Junior Group Performance for the Alaska state affiliate contest, the qualifier for National History Day.

Merle Egan Anderson did not seek recognition for material reasons, though the status, health benefits and victory bonus would have made a tremendous difference in her quality of life after the war. In her eighties, she still hadn’t given up on seeking a place for the Women Operators of the Signal Corps in US Army history. “I love my country; consequently, I want that country to be worth loving. When I was asked what I would like to see most before I die, I said: ‘I would like to see the young people say, “I love my country,” as they did in 1918.’”

Student Responses to Collaborating on this Project

“The Hello Girls had a profound effect on history and their sacrifice has made significant changes in our lives that we didn’t even realize before we began researching them. This is a story worth telling and we don’t want this piece of history to be lost. We made this presentation that will hopefully remind the world of these women who served their country well.” – Amber Baranoski

“I figured that, like me, not many other people knew about them. These women went over to France to fight on the front lines, all because they wanted to serve their country, and then were denied recognition for their service. It seems like someone who goes to all that trouble, training, and travel should be more than recognized, but honored.” – Brady Seeger

“I actually didn’t know anything about The Hello Girls before; bringing attention to them and honoring them felt like the right thing to do.” – Valerie Greenleaf

“I think it’s a great idea to honor them somehow because they were a big part of our history. I am happy that we incorporated songs. It was a lot of work and I’m proud of it. I would love to see some of their history when we go to Washington, DC. Learning in depth about this subject has been very important to my life now.” – Rene Greenleaf

Things we learned from The Hello Girls are Still True in 2024:

“Let me do the job I am able to do, so you can do your job better.” – Valerie Greenleaf

“My freedom does not threaten yours, it only enhances liberty.” – Brady Seeger

“As my light shines, it only strengthens the power of your light.” – Amber Baranoski

“We all have a purpose to accomplish in our lives. Our contribution may not be recognized right away, but that doesn’t cheapen its value.” – Rene Greenleaf

The Whitestone Training Center middle school Alaska National History Day state affiliate competition-winning team (l to r): Rene Greenleaf, Brady Seeger, Amber Baranoski, teacher Lynn Chavez, and Valerie Greenleaf.

Even a century later, it’s right to honor The Hello Girls for their contribution to our freedom as Americans, and as women. Their life’s work means something. The Hello Girls’ contribution caused a significant turning point in efficient wartime communication, which expedited Allied Victory. Not only that, their work changed leaders’ minds about women’s contribution to society, proving they should have the full rights and responsibilities of American citizens.

The War Department Left it to a “Later Congress” to Honor The Hello Girls

Major Robert B. Owens, who first suggested inducting female operators to General Pershing and Brigadier General Russel in the summer of 1917, wrote to the War Department after WWI to ask, “If anything can be done to further recognize the invaluable work done by the American women operators with the A.E.F.” Signal Corps Colonel Aubrey Lippincott promised the corps would not forget their service, hoping that a later Congress might finally bestow “the recognition these girls so justly deserve.”

Is the 118th Congress the one who will finally deliver the Congressional Gold Medal these women deserve? Let this Memorial Day be one to mark the final victory of demonstrating our appreciation of their sacrifice.

Note: Thanks especially to Dr. Elizabeth Cobbs, whose research made our project possible. Thank you for speaking to us and answering so many questions. You are an inspiration!


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