100 years ago… Long before the internet or cell phones there was a brave group of women called the: “Hello Girls”! – American female telephone switchboard operators in World War I, formally known as the “Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit”. During World War I, these switchboard operators were sworn into the U.S. Army Signal Corps. This corps were formed in 1917 from a call by General John J. Pershing to improve communications on the Western front. Applicants had to be bilingual in English and French. Over 7,000 women applied, but only 450 were accepted. Many were former switchboard operators or employees at telecommunications companies. They completed their Signal Corps training at Camp Franklin, now a part of Fort George G. Meade in Maryland.
After training, the first operators, under the lead of Chief Operator Grace Banker, left for Europe in March 1918. Members of this unit were soon operating telephones in many exchanges of the American Expeditionary Forces in Paris, Chaumont, and seventy-five other French locations as well as British locations in London, Southampton, and Winchester. The Chief Operator of the Second American Unit of Telephone Operators was Inez Crittenden of California.
Despite the fact that they wore U.S. Army Uniforms and were subject to Army Regulations (Chief Operator Grace Banker received the Distinguished Service Medal), they were not given honorable discharges but were considered “civilians” employed by the military, because Army Regulations specified the male gender. Not until 1978, the 60th anniversary of the end of World War I, did Congress approve Veteran Status/Honorable discharges for the remaining “Hello Girls.” A Hello Girl uniform is on display at the U.S. Army Signal Museum. The uniform was worn by Louise Ruffe, a U.S. Signal Corps telephone operator. In 2018, the “Hello Girls Congressional Gold Medal Act” was pending final approvals.
Filmmaker James Theres says he was inspired to make “The Hello Girls“ when he first heard about their service. But the Racine-native learned about the group of switchboard operators from the early 20th century in a decidedly 21st century fashion – a Google search for any story on World War I, which yielded a link to Elizabeth Cobbs’s book, The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers. Cobbs cooperated with Theres in the making of the documentary.