The ‘Hello Girls’ helped win WWI—why was their service overlooked?

Published: 12 June 2024

By Erin Blakemore
via the National Geographic website

NatGeo 1

American women operating a telephone exchange at the Elysees Palace Hotel, Paris, in 1919. The Women's Telephone Unit of the Signal Corp was the first time the U.S. deployed women to combat zones.

When American women were first deployed into combat zones, the U.S. refused to consider them veterans for more than 50 years.

Ethel Elkins was one roughly 25,000 American women who volunteered in Europe during the First World War. But unlike most who served with the International Red Cross and other aid organizations, Elkins was one of the first female soldiers officially deployed to a combat zone—as a uniformed member of the U.S. Army Signal Corps.

An eager nation took note: “How many girls do you know with ‘the disposition of angels’ who can add thereto a strong constitution, soldierly fortitude, a low, musical voice, and ability to speak French just as fluently as English?” trilled a reporter in a 1918 Philadelphia newspaper article about Elkins. She was no girl, but her voice did matter: Her unit would serve as front-line telephone operators on the battlefields of France, translating, encoding, and deciphering critical messages between French and U.S. forces.

Known informally as the “Hello Girls,” the 223 women of the Woman’s Telephone Unit of the American Signal Corps were known for their efficacy, patience, and fearlessness on the battlefront. But despite their historic service and the significant publicity they elicited at the beginning of their military service, Elkins and her counterparts would later be denied veteran status and military benefits, and their efforts almost completely forgotten.

No longer: More than a century later, a bipartisan group of legislators is pushing for Congress to memorialize the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit’s service with the nation’s highest civilian honor: the Congressional Gold Medal.

A nation calls its women

When the U.S. first entered the war in 1917, it had tried relying on French telephone operators to place calls to and from the front, but issues with English proficiency and cultural differences prompted American officials to turn to their own servicemen to do the job. That failed, too: The male soldiers’ lack of language proficiency and experience with switchboards immediately became clear. The Army needed experienced operators, and most American telephone operators at the time were women. So that same year, General John Pershing put out a call for women interested in serving their country at the front.

The Second Unit of the Signal Corps in a 1918 group photo. The women purchased their own uniforms and were not reimbursed by the U.S. Army for the expense.

Soon, the Army gathered a group of mostly bilingual operators, culled from single applicants who could passed psychological tests and Secret Service background checks. Subject to regular Army discipline, the women, who were an average age of 26, underwent military training including drills and lessons on military history and terminology. The first group of 33 telephone operators, wearing U.S. Army uniforms of navy blue wool, reported to the front in France in March 1918.

On the front lines

The presence of American women on European battlefields made a splash from the start, and they immediately became known as the “Hello Girls,” a term with unknown origins that emerged with the growing popularity of the telephone in the early 20th century. They operated at five times the speed of their male counterparts, says Lora Vogt, Vice President of Education and Interpretation at the National WWI Museum and Memorial, and maintained and provided the communications essential to Allied victory.

The job was dangerous, historian Jill Frahm writes: The women often worked within range of German artillery, performing everything from transmitting coded messages to directing supplies to connecting commanding officers with men in the trenches, even working to get communications working when the fighting damaged wires. “The [Army Expeditionary Forces] telephone operators were a trusted part of the military machine,” writes Frahm, “something no group of women had ever been before.”

Read the entire article on the National Geographic website here:

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