My Wild World War One Adventure

Published: 22 April 2024

By Elizabeth Cobbs
Special to the Doughboy Foundation website

Hello Girls covers

Elizabeth Cobbs' 1917 book "The Hello Girls: America's First Women Soldiers" is available in hardcover, paperback, Kindle, and audio book versions from Amazon and other booksellers.

Scholars commonly seek topics with some hook to the present so their books won’t be covered in library dust a month after release. Trust me. It is not easy to get people to read. Even when a writer does find some connection—let’s say the Centennial of World War One, for the sake of argument—publishing is still hit or miss.

A topic I chose a few years back was so obscure that a kind and experienced historian warned me that he doubted the story of the U.S. Army Signal Corps women in France from 1918 to 1920 could fill a whole book. Imagine my surprise when the pages I did manage to fill found a passionate, fiercely loyal audience far beyond the library.

World War One is infamous as the first war of the Industrial Revolution. Machine guns, airplanes, gas shells, siege howitzers, and tanks pinned fragile human bodies in dirt trenches. Rapid communication via telegraph and radio sped military commands hundreds, even thousands, of miles to make war feasible across vast fronts.

The humble, versatile, inexpensive, and nearly indestructible telephone kept it all in motion. Neither telegraphs nor radios of the day carried human voices. Both required translation from Morse code into written language. Over the telephone, soldiers and commanders could simply talk. And they did.

Well, they did if they could get connected. Each call had to be patched through a relay system of telephone “exchanges.” In the United States, which had the world’s largest telephone network by far, female operators largely performed this job, segregated by sex.

Gen. John Pershing reviews a unit of the Hello Girls in France. Pershing needed skilled telephone operators and called for the Army to recruit the women despite strong objections from within the military.

When General John Pershing arrived in France in mid-1917, he found to his puzzlement, then horror, that almost every call he and his officers wanted to make faced unusual delays. The average trained Doughboy took a full minute to connect a single call over the coded and complicated switchboards. In wartime, delay kills.

A younger Signal Corps commander suggested women might do a better job. Why not recruit them into the Army? The U.S. Navy had just added a new classification known as Yeoman (F), meaning female sailor. Popularly known as Yeomanettes, these pioneers served stateside on dry land to allow more men to operate ships between Europe and the United States. Perhaps the Army might borrow the idea to improve its disappointing and dangerous performance in wartime communications.

Pershing and other senior officers initially balked. But once the Army commander learned that female operators could connect five calls per minute, he cabled home.

“On account of the great difficulty of obtaining properly qualified men, request organization and dispatch to France of force of woman telephone operators all speaking French and English equally well,” General Pershing wrote the War Department. All women “should be uniformed” and take the Army oath.

More than 7000 patriotic women volunteered. Only 233 were selected to sail to France.

During the fiercest months of fighting, they operated switchboards twenty-four hours a day. Nicknamed the Hello Girls, these female combatants patched through 26 million urgent messages, many to aid troops under fire. Had Doughboys still manned the boards, the number of calls would have been closer to 5 million. Untold lives would have been sacrificed.

Wow! What a great story, I thought as I conducted my research. One would assume every American would love to hoist the flag and toast these women.

Hello Girls managing tactical communications for the American Expeditionary Forces in France. Note the helmets and gas masks required when working in a combat environment.

Not so. At the National Archives in Maryland and its satellite branch in Missouri, I found that the Army instead had done its best to stamp out their story altogether. That’s when the tale got even hotter for me as a writer.

Two operators died and were buried in France with military honors. When survivors sailed home in 1919, the Army informed them that their worn dog-tags and dedicated service did not entitle them to the same Victory Medals, cash bonuses, or hospitalization for disability granted to male soldiers. In peacetime, hidebound bureaucrats found little use for women in the Army, so they informed returned Signal Corps operators that they had never been soldiers at all, merely contract workers. One was told she hadn’t taken the Army oath, though the document was safe in her government file. Another was told that to call her a veteran would demean the status of “real” veterans.

Another battle began. From the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt through Jimmy Carter, the women petitioned Congress and the Executive Branch for recognition. Congress finally granted it in the late 1970s (along with the Women’s Airforce Service Pilots of World War II), but most had already died. The veteran who led their fight, Merle Egan Anderson of Washington State, received her WWI Victory Medal exactly sixty years after returning from France.

Harvard University Press released my book The Hello Girls: America’s First Woman Soldiers in April 2017, timed with the day that Congress had declared war one hundred years earlier. I anticipated the usual. A few nice reviews in academic journals, maybe a newspaper article or two, followed by a long and restful period collecting dust. I immediately started work on a new book about another female veteran, Harriet Tubman, who had to fight Congress only thirty years for her long-deserved military pension for dangerous intelligence work during the Civil War.

Then curious things began to happen. For the first time in my career, The New Yorker magazine reviewed my book, something nearly unheard of for a scholarly publication. Christian Science Monitor called it “utterly delightful” and Library Journal gave it one of their coveted stars for excellence and importance. NPR said the book conveyed in “authoritative, dispassionate, this-was-some-self-evident-nonsense lucidity, the dismaying extent to which their country failed them when it was over.”

(L to r) The Hello Girls documentary; Grace Banker and Her Hello Girls Answer the Call children’s book; The Hello Girls: A New American Musical.

Most surprising of all, a documentary filmmaker contacted me, then a children’s book author, then two Broadway producers, all determined to tell every American about the soldiers’ courage and commitment. Documentarian James Theres, author Claudia Friddell, and producers Peter Mills and Cara Reichel took the story of the Hello Girls to new heights.

Then there were the descendants. Letters of thanks came from New Hampshire, California, New York, Virginia, Maine, Washington, Michigan, and even France. Many said they knew their grandmother or great-aunt had served in the First World War in some mysterious way, but never understood she was an American combatant. We embraced when the doors opened at the musical in New York City—and sat together in the audience. They were unimaginably proud of their foremothers.

I thought I was done pinching myself when I learned that the World War One Centennial Commission and the Doughboy Foundation had decided to fight for the Congressional Gold Medal for these trailblazers of the “war to end all wars.

Senate and House bills introduced in the 118th Congress to award a Congressional Gold medal to the Hello Girls.

The medal made sense to me. I had had the pleasure of signing books at the Military Women’s Memorial at Arlington on the day the documentary was released. When I looked down a long line of eager readers as we ran out of copies, I realized that most people in it were women of unusually erect bearing. Female veterans. As they came up, they told me over and over that they had never before known where their story started.

George Washington received the inaugural Congressional Gold Medal. Serviceman today can look to him as their forbearer, the first man to swear the American oath. The readers in line at the Memorial wanted to know their forbearers, the first female combatants to do the same. Like George Washington, the Hello Girls had stepped forward at the earliest opportunity to serve their nation under fire, without thought of personal comfort or safety. Their essential service helped win a world war.

My book, The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers, was a pleasure to write, as books generally are. But the story escaped my pen long ago. Indeed, it was never my story at all.

But I have found one final way to salute the heroines, with the hope of speeding the Congressional Gold Medal. David Kennedy of Stanford University, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Freedom From Fear: Franklin D. Roosevelt, recently joined me in recruiting more than fifty acclaimed historians to sign a petition to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives regarding S.815 and HR 1572. Sponsored by Senator Jon Tester of Wyoming and Emanuel Cleaver of Missouri (Pershing’s home state!), these bills would bestow upon our first women soldiers the honor they deserve. Across the country, scholars charged with telling the nation’s story stand behind them.

When World War One ended in November 1917, General Pershing mustered thousands of troops on the vast parade grounds at Chaumont, U.S. Army Headquarters in France. He ordered the Hello Girls to march to the front row.

That is where they should stand now.

Elizabeth Cobbs is Dwight E. Stanford Professor Emerita at San Diego State University. She wrote The Hello Girls while holding the Melbern G. Glasscock Chair at Texas A&M, and is the author of nine books.


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