Climbing the Hills For The Hello Girls During Women’s History Month

Published: 23 March 2024

By Catherine Bourgin
Special to the Doughboy Foundation website

Clark headstonr

Zada Daniels Clark is the only member of the Hello Girls (U.S. Army Signal Corps telephone operators of World War I) known to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery. She rests with her husband, who also served in WWI. Since Clark died prior to the Hello Girls gaining recognition as Veterans in 1977, there is no indication of her service on the headstone.

March is designated as Women’s History Month. This year it started off on 3 March with a screening of the documentary by James Theres, The Hello Girls, at the Military Women’s Memorial, which is nestled in the hillside at the end of the grand boulevard at the entrance of Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, VA. The cemetery location is the former home and property of Robert E. Lee, and is well known for the perfectly geometric rows of white marble headstones of our fallen warriors since 1864.

Following the documentary screening there was a musical presentation, light refreshments, and an opportunity to stroll through the museum and find out more about women who have served in America’s military throughout our nation’s history. While the audience left the screening room for the next event, I took a different direction. Along with Jim, Chris, Linda, and a guest of mine also named Catherine, we went looking for Zada Clark’s gravesite.

We hopped on an Arlington National Cemetery shuttle bus that took us to the section of Zada’s burial site, which was located on a gentle, slopping hillside not far from the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Even though we were in the correct section, and knew the grave marker number, we still had to hunt for her headstone. It was a sunny mild day for early March. Her cemetery section was older. You could tell because the headstones varied in size, shape, and color. The rule for uniformity came later after she was buried there.

(L to R) Catherine Bourgin, Linda Jantzen, and Jim Theres by Zada Daniels Clark’s headstone in Arlington National Cemetery.

We spread out looking in all directions. Occasionally calling out “found it” too soon out of anticipation and excitement before verifying if this was the right one. After all, there are many with the last name Clark. Finally, confirmation was made. We all scurried over like we had found a long-lost friend.

Who was she? Why were we so interested? She is the first woman we know of who is buried in the hallowed grounds of Arlington Cemetery from a group of 233 women who volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army during World War I. They came from across the country, and some were born in Canada, but they all had to be bilingual in French and English. They wanted to support the war effort, to do their part to support the Doughboys and win the war raging in Europe. They were trained by AT&T to be telephone operators, swore an oath, and put on the uniform of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, then boarded ships for the perilous voyage across the German U-Boat infested Atlantic Ocean to France to join the American Expeditionary Forces fighting there.

Under General Pershing’s command,  the operators used their skills to transmit battlefield tactical communications for the AEF, and to both the French and British armies. They were much faster and more efficient than the male soldier operators they replaced. They moved with the AEF as the front line changed, and endured the same dangers as the Doughboys, including fire from long range artillery even in Paris. Their expertise saved lives and shortened the war. They were affectionately nicknamed the Hello Girls.

When the war ended, they stayed on duty after most of the Army forces had left, to handle communications during the Versailles Peace Treaty negotiations. Their skills, professionalism, and fearless dedication was recognized within the AEF, by General Pershing himself, and even by President Wilson, who later reversed his position on women’s right to vote, and the 19th Amendment was ratified in 1920.

We found Zada Clark in Arlington National Cemetery. She was once a Hello Girl in the U.S. Army Signal Corps in WWI. But her resting place was there with her third husband who had been in the military and was a veteran, also serving in WWI. At the time of her death, Zada was not considered a veteran for her service with the U.S. Army Signal Corps because of the U.S. Army’s regulations that said only men were admitted to military service. None of these 233 women were acknowledged as veterans for sixty years until 1977 when President Carter signed the G.I. Improvement Bill.

A coin left on the headstone is a message to the deceased veteran’s family that someone has visited their grave and paid their respects.

We spent some time talking amongst ourselves about what we knew about Zada. As far as we knew she had no children. We wondered how long it had been since anyone might have visited her graveside.  We thanked her for her service and told her we were working hard on the H.R 1572/S. 815 The Hello Girls Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2023 campaign. Jim suggested we leave a coin on her headstone as a sign that friends stopped by to pay their respects.

We hopped on the shuttle bus back to the visitor center. This visit was a result of research led by James Theres to discover where the Hello Girls were buried. Numerous hours were spent which resulted in the Hello Girls Virtual Cemetery created online in Find-Grave. Additional research helped reveal where some of the women had lived at various stages of their lives. This information was gathered to determine which Congressional district they lived in or were buried in.

U.S. Capitol grounds in Washington D.C. with a magnolia tree in bloom.  (Photo by Sdkb)

Later that week some of us crossed the Potomac River; others drove in from New England and NYC; and one flew in from the Mid-West. We all met in Washington, DC to climb yet another well-known hill: Capitol Hill, for another round of in-person meetings with Senators in the Hart Senate Office Building to campaign for passage of The Hello Girls Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2023. We were also joined by two buglers who were WWI reenactors in uniform carrying their field bugles. The Hart office building was buzzing like a hive with Veterans groups in town for meetings. That first day everyone was juggling for time and space to be heard.

Our second day back in Hart was noticeably calmer, and our day was filled with in-person meetings. We left as soon as we were finished to avoid the lockdown that happens when POTUS presents the State of the Union Address on the Hill.

Remember all the research on the Hello Girls locations and districts?  Because the House only wants to hear from their constituents, we created flyers using that research information to be hand-delivered, which gave us a brief entrée into the offices to make contact. Before we knew it, we went back for one more day, this time papering the hallways in the House of Representatives offices. We gained six new cosponsors!

I don’t know how Women’s History month will end, but we all hope and pray that the CGM will be passed in this, the third session of Congress since it was first introduced. I love the adventure, the learning, and the passion from the group of volunteers supported by the United States World War I Centennial Commission and the Doughboy Foundation surrounding America’s First Women Soldiers, the women of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, AEF. These women were not dissuaded by their denial for veterans’ status, and fought for it until they were finally recognized. I hope we can do the same for them with the CGM.

Catherine Bourgin and her grandmother Hello Girl Marie Edmee LeRoux

And I want to do this for my grandmother, Edmee LeRoux, who was in Unit 4 stationed in Paris and Tours in WWI. She was an independent, courageous women with a strong spirit and a sense of duty. She lived on two continents. She was a veteran of WWI and a survivor of WWII; a music student, a singer; a mother; and a patriot of her time.

All these women of the U.S. Army Signal Corps were patriots. Let’s build on their legacy to tell their story, being the first of the first to pave the way for women’s military service, igniting the passion and desire of succeeding generations of women to serve our great nation in uniform. The Hello Girls deserve it because they earned it! Will you answer the call to support The Hello Girls Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2023, H.R.1572/S.815?!

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