‘The Hello Girls’ ― the story of the first U.S. women soldiers ― comes to Sonoma

Published: 11 April 2024

By Emma Molloy
via the Sonoma Index Tribune newspaper (CA) website


A scene from a rehearsal of ‘The Hello Girls,’ a musical based on America’s first women soldiers, who served as bilingual telephone operators on the front lines during World War I. Pictured left to right: Aja Gianola-Norris, Drew Bolander, Skyler King, Tina Traboulsi, Emily Evans, Jenny Veilleux, and Sarah Lundstrom. Photo taken at Andrews Hall in the Sonoma Community Center on East Napa Street on Thursday, April 4, 2024. (Robbi Pengelly/Index-Tribune)

Sonoma Arts Live brings ‘The Hello Girls’ musical to Sonoma, the story of the first U.S. female soldiers and their significant role in the ending of World War I.

More than 100 years ago 223 brave women, known as the Hello Girls, served in the Army as telephone switchboard operators during World War I.

The story of the first female soldiers who served on the frontlines before they were granted their right to vote, is brought to life in the Sonoma Arts Live production of the Broadway musical, “The Hello Girls.”

Director Maeve Smith’s production of “The Hello Girls” opens April 19 at the Sonoma Community Center in Andrews Hall and runs through May 5.

When Gen. John J. Pershing commander of the American Expeditionary Forces discovered his male troops, the Doughboys, were not efficient enough in transmitting vital, battlefield communications, he issued a call for women to serve as telephone switchboard operators.

More than 7,600 young women eagerly volunteered and applied to be sent overseas, and 223 women fluent in English and French were selected. By Nov. 11, 1918, the Hello Girls had connected over 26,000,000 calls for the American Expeditionary Forces.

When these female soldiers returned home, they were told they were not considered soldiers by the Army, despite the fact they had taken Army oaths ― often twice, wore Army uniforms, were given dog tags and were subject to court martial.

It took more than 60 years for these women to get veterans status from the U.S. government. When the Hello Girls finally received their deserved recognition in 1977, only 20 of the 223 soldiers had lived to see the day.

The lively musical tells the true story of the courageous young women and their significant role in the ending of World War I.

The unmarked grave in Sonoma

When conducting research for the play, Smith acquired information from James Theres, filmmaker of the documentary, “The Hello Girls,” which led her to a remarkable discovery.

WWI Hello Girl Juliette Louise Courtial Smith is buried in Sonoma, CA, one of 39 Hello Girls who came from California.

“I just thought the musical was really fresh, interesting, and a great story to tell. And then as I started getting ready to direct it, I did my research, like you’re supposed to for a historical show,” Smith said. “And there was this unearthing of people that are doing work for the Hello Girls, giving me all their research and that led me to finding that one of them was in Sonoma.”

Hello Girl Juliette Louise Courtial Smith was buried in the Saint Francis Solano Cemetery in Sonoma. However, when visiting her grave site, the director discovered there was no headstone to be found.

Smith contacted the cemetery owners and they confirmed Courtial was buried there. The Hello Girl’s husband, William Smith, and her mother, Hortense Courtial, were also buried at the site and have inscribed grave markers.

“I was, like, this is so sad, but also amazing, that we could potentially help her get the recognition she deserves,” Smith said.

Courtial not only lies in an unmarked grave, but she does not have recognition for her service as a veteran, unlike other grave stones for those who’ve served.

Courtial was originally from New Orleans, Louisiana, and moved to California with her husband when he was offered a job in Sonoma. She died on Nov. 30, 1958, and possibly had a grave marker at one point.

Smith sprang into action and worked with the American Legion to initiate getting the Hello Girl a proper headstone. Because there was no next of kin, another veteran had to facilitate the process.

Many of the Hello Girls’ grave sites do not include recognition for their service as they died before they received veteran status.

Read the entire article on the Sonoma Index Tribune website here:

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