'Hello Girls' Kept World War I Communications Humming
By Kelly Bell
via the Veterans of Foreign Wars web site
By the time the U.S. declared war on Germany in 1917, the Navy had already opened its doors to women, assigning them ground jobs that freed up men for sea service. The need ashore was even greater.
As the first American forces began arriving in France that summer, they found the communications network in disarray. In three years of combat, telephone lines were shot, shelled and bombed faster than they could be repaired.
Furthermore, the French women operating telephone exchanges spoke no English and in general were very casual toward their duties, frequently forsaking their switchboards in order to go to canteens, shopping and to meet with boyfriends. The very first U.S. phone operators were men who were poorly trained and tended to hang up when combat-stressed officers shouted at them over the lines.
Pershing Calls for ‘Hello Girls’
Army Gen. John J. Pershing, commander of American Expeditionary Forces in World War I, found this situation intolerable. He had, however, noted the efficiency and competence of Britain’s Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps as they expertly kept England-based phone lines humming.
In November, he urgently advised his War Department of the need for French-speaking American women to take over the telephone system so that Allied military operations could be effectively coordinated.
Before Pershing had boarded the ship that bore him to Europe, he stuffed its hold with the latest in communications technology. The telephone was an American invention, and he was determined to exploit it to its fullest potential.
The War Department placed advertisements in newspapers across the country, and more than 7,000 patriotic women eagerly responded. The vast majority had to be rejected because they had no communications experience and spoke no French.
From this pool, the Army selected 150, mostly Louisiana Creoles and the daughters and granddaughters of French and French-Canadian immigrants. Following intensive training (in some cases re-training women who had been working as telegraph operators) by AT&T and basic instruction in military protocol, the Secret Service meticulously screened these volunteers to assure they were loyal to the Allied cause. Eventually, 223 women were cleared for duty and served in war-torn France.
Read the entire article on the VFW web site here:
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