America’s First Women Soldiers of WWI Deserve the Congressional Gold Medal

Published: 26 February 2024

By Donna Diamond Ayres, Catherine Bourgin, Candy McCorkell, Carolyn Timbie
Special to the Doughboy Foundation website

3. 2015.121_Elysee Palace Headquarters Paris

The U.S. Army Signal Corps telephone operators (known as the "Hello Girls") staffing the American Expeditionary Forces Headquarters switchboard at Elysee Palace in Paris, France during World War I.

Over 100 years ago, Gen. John J. Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF), issued the call for women telephone operators to serve overseas in France.  Prioritizing military necessity over the Army’s prohibition against women, Pershing cabled the War Department and wrote, “On account of the great difficulty of obtaining properly qualified men, request organization and dispatch to France a force of women telephone operators all speaking French and English equally well.”  The dispatches went out in newspapers across the country.  Over 7,600 young women applied.  Ultimately, 223 American, French-speaking women were selected.  As many remarked later, “they just wanted to do their bit.”   They were adventurous, even intrepid pioneers of their time.  Known affectionately as the “Hello Girls,” our grandmothers Chief Operator Grace Banker, 25, Edmee LeRoux, 22, Melina Adam, 22, and great aunt, Olive Shaw, 28, were four of those women.

Catherine Bourgin (left) and her grandmother Hello Girl Marie Edmee LeRoux

The telephone was the premier communication technology in the early 1900’s.  American women dominated the new landscape.  However, when Gen. Pershing and the AEF arrived in France, they found the Doughboys and war-fatigued foreign operators were not efficient enough in transmitting vital, battlefield communications.  Gen. George Squire was assigned the task of replicating the vast American telephone network on French soil.  By war’s end, he had created 56 field signal battalions, 33 telegraph battalions, 12 depot battalions, six training companies, and 40 service companies totaling 2,712 officers and 53,277 men.

The 223 Hello Girls were assigned to operate the switchboards and exchanges located in such places as Paris, Chaumont, Souilly, Tours, and some moved forward with the First Army for service in the battles of St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne.  Their impact was immediate.  Calls tripled from 13,000 to 36,000 per day. Eventually, a total of six units of Hello Girls would deploy, bringing the number of calls per day to 150,000.  By November 11, 1918, they had connected over 26,000,000 calls for the AEF.

Carolyn Timbie (left) and her grandmother Hello Girl Chief Operator Grace Banker.

The women risked their lives at sea, threatened by German submarines, and throughout France.  During the battle of St. Mihiel, Banker wrote, “I was awakened at 1:30 a.m. by the roar of the guns.  Soon, I was back in the office with the girls.  We took over the boards.  The old flimsy barracks shake as though in an earthquake.”   Two women, Chief Operator of the second unit Inez Crittenden and Operator Cora Bartlett, died overseas in service to their country.  Crittenden died on the day of the Armistice from complications of influenza and was buried at Surenses American Cemetery near Paris.  Bartlett died on June 23, 1919, from Typhoid fever. Her fellow male soldiers held an elaborate military funeral procession for her.  She was later returned home and is buried in Michigan.

The Hello Girls also served at the Paris Peace Conference of 1919 and in the occupation of Germany.  The last of the Hello Girls returned home in January 1920 only to discover that they were not considered soldiers by the Army despite wearing uniforms provided by the Army and taking Army oaths, often twice.  The uniforms had regulation Army buttons and U.S. Army Signal Corps insignia, and operators, supervisors, and chief operators were distinguished by different insignia on the white brassard worn on the left arm. They had signed no civilian contracts and believed, and moreover were repeatedly told, “you’re in the Army now.”

General John J. Pershing, Commander of the American Expeditionary Forces in Europe during World War I, inspects a unit of the U.S. Army Signal Corps telephone operators (known as the “Hello Girls”) in Paris.

The vital role the women played during the Great War was acknowledged and appreciated.  Fifteen women received commendations, and Chief Operator Banker was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal with the wording of the award applying to all 223 women.  Shortly after the war’s conclusion, Gen. Pershing commented that “no civil telephone service that ever came under my observation excelled the perfection of ours. The telephone girls in the AEF took great pains and pride in their work and did it with satisfaction to all.

Donna Diamond Ayres and her grandaunt Hello Girl Olive Shaw

Despite their achievements, the Army would not budge.  The women became concerned when they didn’t receive “honorable discharges” but instead were given “service termination letters.”  Many did not accept that verdict and fought for recognition for 60 years.  Led by Merle Egan from Montana, over 50 times legislation was introduced without success.  As time passed, so were the women passing.  It became more urgent to get recognition before all the Hello Girls were gone, and possibly, the story of their heroic service during the Great War erased from our collective history.  Mark Hough, an attorney from Washington, read their story in the Seattle newspapers and decided to help the women.  Finally, in 1977, bipartisan legislation sponsored by Sen. Barry Goldwater from Arizona and Rep. Lindy Boggs from Louisiana passed in Congress recognizing their military service.  It was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in November 1977.  Sadly, only a handful were still alive.

The women who served overseas with the Hello Girls, including Y.W.C.A., nurses, and American Red Cross, also had a significant impact on political and cultural change in American society.  It is no coincidence that legislation giving women the right to vote was passed by Congress in 1920.  Upon his return from the Paris Peace Conference, President Woodrow Wilson, who did not support women’s suffrage early on, said “We have made partners of the women in this war; shall we admit them only to a partnership of sacrifice and suffering and toil and not to a partnership of privilege and of right?

Candy McCorkell and her grandmother Hello Girl Melina Adam

After their service, the women returned home to new adventures and careers. Grace Banker Paddock raised a family. She maintained correspondence with Gen. Pershing and Col. Parker Hitt after the war.  She died in New York in 1960 never knowing that her “girls” had finally received their just recognition.  Edmee LeRoux stayed in France and studied music under the Canadian tenor Arthur Plamondon.  She fled France in 1941 and died in Maryland in 1945.  Melina Adam Converse proudly led the Armistice Day parade in her hometown in 1921.  She volunteered thousands of hours at VA hospitals and with the Red Cross.  She died in Oregon in 1967.  Olive Shaw had contracted tuberculosis overseas that required several years of recovery.  She later went to work for Rep. Edith Nourse Rogers from Massachusetts.  Shaw lived to see her recognition and received her honorable discharge in 1979.  When Shaw passed in 1980, she was given the honor of being the first burial at Massachusetts National Cemetery.

Now we, four descendants of these honorable and patriotic women, are urging Congress to pass the bipartisan Hello Girls Congressional Gold Medal Act, S:815 and H.R. 1572, to ensure their proper place in history as America’s first women soldiers.  A distinction they have earned.

Carolyn Timbie is the granddaughter of Grace Banker; Catherine Bourgin is the granddaughter of Edmee LeRoux; Candy McCorkell is the granddaughter of Melina Adam; Donna Diamond Ayres is the grandniece of Olive Shaw.

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