Reflections on a Ceremony for a WWI Hello Girl, 79 years in the making

Published: 28 May 2024

By Catherine Bourgin
Special to the Doughboy Foundation website

LeRoux event header

Rev. Anne Weatherholt of, Epiphany Episcopal Church in Odenton, MD., leads the Benediction at the service for Hello Girl Marie Edmee LeRoux on May 3, 2024 at Ft. Lincoln Cemetery in Maryland. Epiphany Chapel is the only known remaining World War I chapel in the nation.

Now that the long-anticipated ceremony for Marie Edmee LeRoux is over, and I have had time to draw a breath, I wanted to thank everyone concerned with the event, and share some thoughts I had during the ceremony and some others that have come to me since May 3rd 

Marie Edmee LeRoux, one of the World War I ‘Hello Girls’ who ran military communications in France, was buried in an unmarked grave in 1945. (Catherine Bourgin/Family photo)

Growing up I heard family stories about grandmother. These stories were like vignettes on the larger timeline of her life. The details shared were from memories lived long ago. They didn’t necessarily string together to make a complete picture but rather highlights of moments in time and place. One of those vignettes that often made me wonder was the story that when my grandmother, Marie Edmee LeRoux, passed away, she was buried in an unmarked grave in the Washington, D.C. area. As a kid I wondered why and what did that mean? There was no further explanation. Today, whatever the reason was in the past has been lost to time.  

Two years ago, I was encouraged by a friend, whose husband during the pandemic spent his time extensively researching his genealogy, and I would marvel at his stories. I mentioned how I really didn’t know much about my grandmother like most people do. My friend said maybe it’s time for me to start my genealogy research to find out for myself what there was to know about my grandmother beyond the family stories.

I started with some trepidation about what I would I find, and I had no idea how to use today’s genealogy platforms. There was a steep learning curve to start. One thing I learned quickly was how many other researchers would help in their own way when you tell them you want to learn about your grandmother. They helped by providing suggestions, ideas, and techniques. Some would even find an article in a newspaper or a photo. All of them were like gifts which brought me great joy.

One valuable lesson I had to learn was to research the people around my grandmother instead of just focusing on her all the time. And that advice proved to be invaluable because that’s how I found where she was buried! Thanks to my dear LDS neighbor who stumbled upon an obituary of a woman whose name was like that of my great-grandmother’s but with a different last name, and the next of kin listed was my grandmother and her location. I was confused at first, but this discovery prompted me to do more research on my great-grandmother only to discover that she had remarried, and her current husband’s last name was used in this obituary and on her grave marker.

The next surprising discovery was my great-grandmother was buried in Ft. Lincoln cemetery in Brentwood, MD, not far from me. All this time and we weren’t too far away. I decided to visit my great-grandmother’s grave site. Then when getting location instructions at the receptionist desk at the cemetery, I unexpectedly discovered where my grandmother was buried: in an unmarked grave next to her mother. To my great surprise, I had found my grandmother, and solved the mystery of where, but still didn’t know the reason why. 

Several months later I ran across the United States World War I Centennial Commission (WWICC) during a Google search for secondary sources. After an exchange of emails over a couple of months, I was invited to join in their campaign, which was their final recommendation to Congress for commemorating the Centennial of WWI: award of a Congressional Gold Medal for America’s First Women Soldiers who were in the U.S. Army Signal Corps, American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in 1917-1918. Their nickname was the “Hello Girls”.

My grandmother was one of these women, who had to be bilingual, French and English equally, volunteered, selected, vetted, and trained by AT&T to be telephone operators for the AEF to handle all the classified battlefield tactical communications during the war, and the Peace talks that followed. The WWICC has been trying to get Congress to vote for a Congressional Gold Medal for six years now! Everyone says it’s the right thing to do; it’s a no-brainer; why hasn’t this been done before?

In 2023, WWICC created a panel to go to Capitol Hill and present the story of the Hello Girls, and the justification for the Congressional Gold Medal. This panel included Jim Theres, producer and director of The Hello Girls documentary;  Elizabeth Cobbs, author of The Hello Girls book; Allison Finkelstein, PhD,  Senior Historian at Arlington National Cemetery; Phyllis Wilson, President of the Military Women’s Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery; and Carolyn Timbie, granddaughter of Grace Banker, Chief Operator of Unit 1, and then Chief of all of the U.S. Army Signal Corps bilingual telephone operators. And then they added me to the mix!

Panelists at the September 18, 2023 presentation about the Hello Girls Congressional Gold Medal legislation to Senate staffers gather for a group photo after the event. Seated, left to right: Catherine Bourgin, granddaughter of Hello Girl Marie Edmee LeRoux; Jim Theres, producer and director of The Hello Girls documentary. Standing, left to right: Allison Finkelstein, PhD, Senior Historian at Arlington National Cemetery; Phyllis Wilson, President of the Military Women’s Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery; Elizabeth Cobbs, author of The Hello Girls book; Carolyn Timbie, granddaughter of Hello Girl Grace Banker.

My contribution was to tell my grandmother’s story of when she was a Hello Girl in Unit 4. Fortunately, by then I had done extensive research and had gathered many new facts and stories about her life just as I had set out to do. Now I was going to tell her story to Congressional staffers to personalize the Congressional Gold Medal for them, and to provide one more layer of justification to act now.  All of this was unimaginable when I first started my genealogy research. 

Then I was asked a simple question by two of the panel members following our presentation to Senate staffers in September: did I know where my Hello Girl grandmother was buried? This question apparently is often asked of this group because people think of these women as veterans, and anticipate them to be buried in a place of honor. Sadly, when most of them did pass away, our U.S. government did not consider these women to be veterans. Not until 1977 when President Jimmy Carter signed the GI Amendment bill did the Hello Girls finally received their veteran’s status. Only about a dozen lived to see the day, receive their discharge papers, medals, and have the right to military honors burial.

Unaware of the significance of this question to locate the Hello Girls burial sites, I simply answered that I did know, and added that she is in an unmarked grave, for reasons unknown to me. This response sparked something in two of the panel members who immediately began discussing it and peppering me with additional questions. It was a very in-depth and serious conversation that stunned me, and I had to scurry to keep up with the ideas flying about; then my thoughts turned to: who are these panel members? How could they possibly be interested, concerned, and have the capability to change any of it? These panel members finally paused long enough to ask if I was on board with the idea. Still in disbelief and unsure how to respond, it dawned on me that my grandmother in her unmarked grave symbolized all the Hello Girls who served in their capacity valiantly, courageously, with dedication to the mission, and yet when the war was over, they were dismissed, ignored, and then forgotten by their nation for 60 years. I said yes, let’s do it! Especially if this helps get the Congressional Gold Medal for all the Hello Girls! That day back in September 2023 was the beginning of something I never could have envisioned or hoped for.  

Months of planning, meetings, ideas discussed all happened through online group meetings. Once again, I was overwhelmed by the elaborate plans unfolding and how so many people wanted to contribute. None of them knew my grandmother, but their commonality was they had served in the U.S. Armed Forces and wanted to respectfully recognize a WWI veteran with a proper grave marker recognizing her military service during a military honors dedication ceremony. A date was set for mid-January – then winter decided to show up that very same week. It snowed twice in one week and the second snowstorm was on the day of the ceremony. We had to reschedule.

We put the plans on the shelf and turned our focus to the Congressional Gold Medal campaign. We walked the halls of the Senate offices for several months attending in-person meetings with staffers, made drop by visits, and held online meetings when we were not all together on the Hill. As Spring arrived, we pulled those plans off the shelf, selected a date, and invited again all our guests, hoping they would want to attend this time on May 3rd.

Ambassador to the U.S. from Canada Kirsten Hillman (left) presents a certificate honoring Canadian-born Marie Edmee LeRoux to LeRoux’s granddaughter Carolyn Bourgin, during the gave marker ceremony at Fort Lincoln Cemetery on May 3, 2024. Danial Dayton, Executive Director of the U.S. World War I Centennial Commission, is at right.

The weather delay in many ways was a blessing. It gave us time to pump up the Congressional Gold Medal campaign. As a group we grew closer together and more determined to win. We walked miles on the Hill; talked for hours online with staffers; wrote hundreds of emails, and garnered the support of several other like-minded organizations for our campaign. We have moved the needle from 30 Senate cosponsors to 59. We need 67 Senate cosponsors to break the inertia and get the Senate to act. On the House of Representatives side, we have 128 cosponsors. Every week we meet online to discuss progress and new strategies. We are in it to win it! 

Finally, May 3rd arrived. The weather was beautiful. Many of our VIP guests like the first woman Ambassador to the U.S. from Canada, Kirsten Hillman, and Canadian Defense Attaché Major-General Michel-Henri St. Louis, accepted the invitation to attend the second time around,  as did Colonel Arnaud de Vachon from the French Embassy, who attended with his family.  The Ft. Lincoln cemetery staff led by Nina Willis outdid themselves with their gracious professionalism, attention to detail and the comfort of the guests.

This was a day and an event that felt like a dream. Seeing how many people were gathering and participating in various ways was so moving. Feeling like a bundle of nerves but filled with joy, I reminded myself to take it all in, look and listen carefully to have it sink into my memory, and most of all, enjoy this day of celebration. After 79 years all these people from all over wanted to be here to celebrate a WWI veteran they never met. 

 This grand military honors grave marker dedication ceremony happened thanks to the National Cemetery Administration (NCA), the United States World War I Centennial Commission , the Doughboy Foundation, the Military Women’s Memorial (MWM), and Ft. Lincoln cemetery.

A great deal of hard work by Jim Theres, who is a valued member of the NCA, went into the development, outreach and implementation of the plans as well as coordinating with all the various groups providing their part for the beautifully orchestrated ceremony with floral wreaths, flags, music, reenactors, military officials, and most of all, a grave marker honoring my grandmother’s military service, which means she no longer lies in eternal repose anonymously. The mission of the NCA is to ensure all veterans are recognized for their service with a military grave marker, no matter how long it takes! All these people made an indelible mark on my family’s history and whatever the reason was from the past that my grandmother was buried in an unmarked grave no longer matters. 

Catherine Bourgin pauses for reflection while speaking during the ceremony honoring her grandmother, WWI Hello Girl Marie Edmee LeRoux, at Fort Lincoln Cemetery in Maryland on May 3, 2024. The ceremony concluded with the placing of a veterans grave marker at LeRoux’s grave that had been unmarked for 79 years.

My grandmother’s military honors grave marker dedication ceremony kicked off a week of Hello Girls events in the Washington, DC area, to include a beautifully written article by Petula Dvorak in the Metro section of the Washington Post on 3 May 2024. Our group toured the National U.S. Army Museum near Ft, Belvoir, VA. At the museum there is a nice but small Hello Girls display which includes a carrier pigeon which was one of the ways to deliver messages before the telephone was implemented in wartime communications. In stark contrast to the Hello Girls, the pigeon was honored with a medal. How were the Hello Girls honored at the end of the war? If you don’t know, then you have the right answer.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs Matt Quinn (left), and Kimberly M. Jackson, the Department’s Chief of Staff (right), present a wreath at the service for WWI U.S. Army Signal Corps Hello Girl Marie Edmee LeRoux at Fort Lincoln Cemetery in Maryland on May 3, assisted by Doughboy Foundation staff member Michael Delaune in U.S. Army WWI uniform.

The next day at the National World War I Memorial, which is across the street from the White House and in front of the Willard Hotel, there was a preview of the Hello Girls musical.  Interspersed during the work week our group had in-person meetings with 5 different Senate staffers which resulted in gaining two new Senate cosponsors.

The final event was attending the Hello Girls musical at the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. I heard great reviews about it but was truly awestruck by the production. Not just the talent and the music but also by how the essence of the story was accurately captured and was so moving. The entire Congress was invited that evening. Several members of the House of Representatives did attend, and were heard exclaiming “Let’s get this done!” as the house lights were turned up and the curtain closed. The message reached them, and they wanted to answer the call of the Congressional Gold Medal for the Hello Girls 

We want all the women of WWI U.S. Signal Corps, AEF to be known throughout our great nation as the American’s First Women Soldiers who volunteered, swore an oath, put on the U.S. Army uniform, and were deployed to France during WWI. They changed the course for future women to serve in the military and influenced the passage of the 19th Amendment. They were saluted by General Pershing and cheered by the Doughboys. We want the Congressional Gold Medal to be the platform for telling their story to the next generation to serve our nation. Building on their legacy through the Congressional Gold Medal will influence and encourage future generations of women to follow in their footsteps to serve the nation and help bolster recruitment efforts. Knowing where it started and seeing the progression of how opportunities have developed until now can be inspiring.

Since WWI the Hello Girls were the women who volunteered “to do their bit to win the war” and ended up changing the course and perception of women in the military. They volunteered because they had a skill, bilingual French-English language skills, to offer to help with critical battlefield tactical communications needed to win the war, and General Pershing recognized women were very good at multitasking, thus made for excellent and efficient telephone operators. General Pershing wanted the best resources to win the war and these young women volunteers also wanted to win the war. They shortened the war by their efficient and dedicated use of the telephone switchboard and their language skills, which saved lives. They were ahead of their time. General Pershing was an “out of the box” thinker. America had to catch up to recognize their unusual but significant contribution for their time. 

I did not set out to do any of this when I began my genealogy research to discover my grandmother. I only answered a simple question with no expectations in return. I never imagined campaigning for H.R.1572/S.815 The Hello Girls Congressional Gold Medal Act of 2023. It’s divine intervention that has put all the right people in place at the right time to achieve the right thing. I have no other explanation and I wouldn’t change a thing! The Hello Girls deserve it because they earned it. Going for Gold, not in Paris, but on Capitol Hill in 2024! Will you answer the call to support this long-overdue recognition for America’s First Women Soldiers? 

On May 3, WWI “Hello Girl” veteran Marie Edmee LeRoux received her veteran’s grave marker at Fort Lincoln Cemetery in Maryland, Her grave had been unmarked for 79 years.

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