This WWI ‘Hello Girl’ has been denied a proper goodbye for decades

Published: 2 May 2024

By Petula Dvorak
via the Washington Post newspaper (DC) website

LeRoux event

Marie Edmee LeRoux, buried in an unmarked grave in Prince George’s County, will finally get a headstone. Now Congress needs to give her a medal.

An unmarked patch of dirt and grass in a Maryland cemetery has covered an astonishing story for nearly 80 years.

Marie Edmee LeRoux was on the front lines of World War I in France, she sang in Paris, jumped out of biplanes in Italy and she was among the small group of women who helped change a president’s mind on giving women the right to vote.

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)

“And in spite of all they did,” said Catherine Bourgin, 59, LeRoux’s granddaughter, “when they were discharged from the military, they were told they were not veterans.”

Bourgin, a quiet and shy woman who lives in McLean and never was much for politics, is now storming the marble halls of Congress and giving talks on Capitol Hill to persuade them to honor these women — known as “Hello Girls” — for their unheralded impact on America.

Bourgin grew up hearing stories about her heroic grandmother and her time as one of America’s 223 Hello Girls. It seemed implausible that women were shipped out on a boat in 1918, rode through waters infested with German U-boats, went to war and returned to America, unadorned and largely uncelebrated.

Where were all their stories?

So she decided to delve into records and understand how much was true. Along the way, she was helped by historians, the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Doughboy Foundation, the World War I Centennial Commission and the Military Women’s Memorial. But some of her biggest finds came from genealogical websites like

The hunt led her to a scrubby patch of land known as “Plot 2” at Fort Lincoln Cemetery in Brentwood, Md. Records showed LeRoux was buried there in 1945 without a marker after she died of cancer right before her 50th birthday.

“This came as quite a shock to me,” Bourgin said.

You’d think someone who served on the front lines would get something.

But from the battlefields of Paris to the jungles of Vietnam, women who risked their lives as translators, test pilots and combat nurses had to fight for benefits, recognition, acknowledgment.

The first time they got a real nod was in 1977, when President Jimmy Carter made it official that the Women Airforce Service Pilots, or WASPs, were officially veterans.

That didn’t mean it’s all done. I wrote in 2016 about the struggle to get WASP Elaine Harmon into Arlington Cemetery after her death at 95. (She won.)

In her search for her grandmother’s story, Bourgin found the continued neglect of our nation’s female veterans — and her own calling.

She’s still lobbying members of Congress to pass the Hello Girls Congressional Medal Act.

“This bill provides for the award of a single Congressional Gold Medal in honor of the female telephone operators of the Army Signal Corps, commonly known as the Hello Girls, in recognition of their military service, devotion to duty, and 60-year struggle for veterans’ benefits and recognition as soldiers,” the bill reads.

The Hello Girls were the brainstorm of Gen. John Pershing, who was frustrated with his soldiers’ laggy and imperfect communications. It took the men assigned to switchboards and the magneto boxes out in the field up to 60 seconds to connect calls, relay important communications and translate from French to English.

A lot was lost in that time.

In 1918, the tech workers of the age were the wizards who operated switchboards and connected people over the miles, nearly all of them women. That was one of the best jobs a female college grad could get at the time.

The Hello Girls, switchboard network operators assigned to the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I. (U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Command)

Pershing saw this and recruited women fluent in French and English to join the war. They didn’t have the right to vote, but Uncle Sam thought they had the right to head to the battlefields.

LeRoux, born in Montreal in 1895, was in Rhode Island when the call came out for women to join the war.

Bourgin still doesn’t know exactly why her grandmother, who was living in Rhode Island at the time, answered that call.

She dug through records to find muster rolls and enlistment papers to find that her grandma took an oath, dressed in the special, long-skirted uniform the Army designed for the women, boarded the S.S. Lapland in Hoboken, N.J., and headed to France.

The women got helmets, gas masks and weapons training because they were so close to the action.

They worked nimbly and calmly, taking calls, interpreting French and English commands, relaying sensitive battlefield positions. They spoke in code — which took some nuance as they switched between languages — as bombings rattled and deafened their building.

The women’s average? Ten seconds.

Beyond their contributions to the unglamorous mechanics of war that all generals know win battles, the Hello Girls ended up having an outsize impact on the struggle back home for equality.

Just before the Hello Girls took their oath to serve, thousands of women marched on Washington, picketing President Woodrow Wilson in favor of suffrage. They were spat upon, arrested and beaten by both police and onlookers.

Wilson, who had years earlier told his staff that he was “definitely and irreconcilably opposed to woman suffrage; woman’s place was in the home, and the type of woman who took an active part in the suffrage agitation was totally abhorrent to him.”

But when Wilson came to France for the signing of the Armistice, he got a look at the Hello Girls at work. They stayed behind and kept grinding away. Late in the war, Wilson delivered a different message.

“This war could not have been fought, either by the other nations engaged or by America, if it had not been for the services of the women — services rendered in every sphere — not merely in the fields of effort in which we have been accustomed to see them work, but wherever men have worked and upon the very skirts and edges of the battle itself,” Wilson said in a September address to the Senate in support of the 19th Amendment.

LeRoux stayed in France after the war. Bourgin wasn’t sure if she was part of the Armistice group. But she found a record showing her attending a parachuting event in Italy as a representative of France. When war visited Europe again, LeRoux made her way back to America with her child, Bourgin’s mother.

Bourgin is still trying to piece together the path that led her grandmother from Paris to Prince George’s County.

A marker will finally be placed on Marie Edmee LeRoux’s grave in Prince George’s County, marking her service as one of America’s wartime “Hello Girls.” (Shanina Willis)

That’s where she’s going to stand on Friday as 27 flags fly and a brass quintet honors her grandmother. Military and civilian officials will be there, even from Canada, as a proper stone will now mark LeRoux’s grave. Her name will finally be there.

But one phrase will stand out: “U.S. Army Signal Corps.”

Read the entire article on the Washington Post website.
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