June 8 Ceremony At World War I Cenotaph In Passaic, NJ’s Armory Park Honors Hello Girls Chief Operator Grace Banker

Published: 9 June 2024

By Doughboy Foundation Staff

Group shot at Cenotaph

Participants in the June 8 ceremony honoring Passaic, NJ native Chief Operator Grace Banker of the WWI Hello Girls are pictured in front of the Memorial Cenotaph in Passaic's Armory Park. (l to right) Staff Sgt. Jake McDonnell, U.S. Army Marching Band; Krystal Cordero of American Legion Post 238 in Woodland Park, NJ; Senna Prasatthong of the original cast of "The Hello Girls: The Musical"; actor Chas Rittenhouse portraying General John Pershing; Colonel Linda Jantzen, USA (retired), member of the U.S. Signal Corps; and Carolyn Timbie, the granddaughter of Grace Banker.

General John Pershing & Banker met last time at Cenotaph dedication in 1924

One hundred years ago, on May 30th, 1924, one of Passaic’s most notable Veterans of World War l, Grace Banker Chief Operator of the U.S. Army Signal Corps telephone operators (known in France as “The Hello Girls”), was invited to attend the Cenotaph memorial dedication ceremony in Passaic‘s Armory Park. John J. Pershing, America’s most famous General of his time, stood together with Banker at the speaker’s stand.

On Saturday, June 8th at Armory Park, in front of the Cenotaph memorial in Passaic, NJ, a ceremony to honor Grace Banker’s service was held. Banker was honored with the US Signal Corps Distinguished Member of the Regiment award. Colonel Linda Jantzen (USA-ret), who was the emcee for the event,  presented a plaque carrying the honor to Grace’s granddaughter, Carolyn Timbie.

General Pershing (reenactor Chas Rittenhouse) provided background about the famous day that the General, Grace Banker, and other notables attended the dedication ceremony. Senna Prasatthong of the original cast of “The Hello Girls: The Musical” appeared in the Hello Girls uniform from the play.

The presentation was followed by a wreath laying ceremony at the Cenotaph from Woodland Park American Legion Post #0238. The ceremony concluded with Taps played by Staff Sgt. Jake McDonnell, U.S. Army.

Born and raised in Passaic, Grace responded to Pershing’s urgent request in 1917 for bilingual telephone operators. She became Chief Operator of the first unit of U.S. Army Signal Corps telephone operators, known affectionately as the “Hello Girls,” to deploy to France with the American Expeditionary Forces. For her service, Grace received the Distinguished Service Medal.

General of the Armies John J. Pershing (right), who commanded the American Expeditionary Forces in France during World War I, and U.S. Army Signal Corps Chief Operator Grace Banker of the “Hello Girls” (shown at left with the Distinguished Service Medal) had their last known meeting on May 30, 1924, at dedication event for the Cenotaph at Armory Park in Passaic, New Jersey, honoring those from the Garden State who served in the American Armed Forces in WWI. Pershing’s request led to the formation of the Hello Girls, who provided essential bilingual strategic and combat communications to the American and French forces, helping bring the fighting to an end sooner than anticipated on the Western Front in WWI.

“I can’t believe it was 100 years ago that she stood on this very site, alongside Pershing, Marshall and Benson to dedicate the Cenotaph memorial,” said Carolyn Timbie, Banker’s granddaughter, after the ceremony. “Even though she was born and raised in Passaic, most residents of the city have never heard of her.  I was honored to see that those who gathered at the park took much interest in her service and hearing the story of the Hello Girls. I was particularly moved to have Veterans attending, and members of the Woodland Park American Legion Post participating in the ceremony.

“Moving forward, I am hopeful that the story of Grace Banker and her service will always be remembered.”

The United States World War I Centennial Commission has recommended to Congress that Grace Banker and her fellow Hello Girls, America’s first women soldiers  be honored with a Congressional Gold Medal. This brave group of women volunteered to fight for their country – even before they had the right to vote. During World War One, the US Army Signal Corps installed a vast telephone network across northern France and eventually occupied Germany to support logistics and command and control communications.  Nearly all switchboard operators in the United States at the time were women. Yet when the American Expeditionary Forces deployed to France, they tried to make-do with male soldier operators, even though many of these men had never even seen a switchboard!

(l to r) General of the Army, John “Blackjack” Pershing; the gentleman responsible for his attendance and for the creation of both the park and the Cenotaph, Robert D. Benson, president of the Passaic Board of Education, former city councilman, highly respected local businessman and “Father” of Passaic’s Park system; and General Pershing’s “aide de camp,” Lieutenant George C. Marshall, future Secretary of State and Head of the Joint Chiefs, during World War II. (Photo property of the Passaic Historical Commission; courtesy of Mark S. Auerbach)

Unsatisfied with the long wait time to connect the ever increasing quantity and importance of telephone calls, General Pershing issued a personal request for women, in uniform, speaking French and English equally well, to serve as switchboard operators and real-time translators so that French and American officers could coordinate under fire. Over 7,600 women volunteered for the first 100 slots. Eventually, 223 women deployed to France, becoming the first unit of women to directly contribute to combat operations in American history. In France, the Hello Girls connected over 26 million calls, averaging a speed of just ten seconds, six times faster than the men they replaced. Over 30 Hello Girls received individual commendations, and two died while in Army service.

Nevertheless, after the war, despite serving under commissioned officers, wearing uniforms, rank insignia, and dog tags, swearing the Army Oath and being subject to court-martial, the Hello Girls were told they had served as “civilian contractors” instead of soldiers. They were ignored for decades and forgotten by history. For almost 60 years, the surviving unit members petitioned Congress and the Army for the same veterans recognition afforded to their male colleagues, as well as to women Army nurses and women Navy Yeomen in World War I.  Finally, in 1977, Congress passed a law paving the way for the Hello Girls, and the Army’s Women Airforce Service Pilots from World War II, to be recognized as full veterans of the US Armed Forces. In 2009, the WASPs received the Congressional Gold Medal. Today, the Commission is working to honor the Hello Girls with the same award.

For more information on the Hello Girls Congressional Gold Medal, please visit http://ww1cc.org/hellogirls

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