Elizabeth Cobbs, a history professor at Texas A&M and a senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, is the author of “The Hello Girls.”
Women were among the last U.S. soldiers to return home from World War I. They will also be among the last honored if an overdue but welcome bipartisan bill pending in the Senate passes.
Three years into World War I, the United States rushed to make up for its tardiness in joining the Allied effort by recruiting, equipping, training, shipping and deploying 2 million doughboys to France. America’s contribution to the Allied victory was inestimably aided by the more than 200 women of the U.S. Signal Corps who operated telephone lifelines that connected combat soldiers with their commanders.
Radios did not yet carry voices, only Morse code, and their wireless signals were notoriously vulnerable to enemy interception. It took three mules to haul a heavy radio field station to the front. By contrast, officers could deliver orders over telephones simply by talking, and the lines were difficult to tap without detection. A single soldier carrying a lightweight spindle could run communication lines into trenches, across battlefields and to captured enemy positions.
The telephone lines transmitted commands to begin bombardments, to launch attacks and to retreat. Infantry officers used telephones to request artillery backup as troops advanced — and sometimes to call off friendly fire when it arrived. Telephones also facilitated military logistics, maintaining supply lines by which wars can be won or lost.
In the second decade of the 20th century, though, the telephone was a relatively rudimentary technology: Telephones didn’t have dials, and human operators were required to connect calls. Parties spoke with an operator who connected them. On the battlefield, when French-speaking and English-speaking commanders wanted to communicate, Signal Corps operators that Stars and Stripes called “bilingual wire experts” acted as interpreters.
In that era, telephone operating was a sex-segregated occupation: Employers preferred females for their dexterity, efficiency, politeness and demonstrated ability to function under intense pressure.
Gen. John J. Pershing, head of the American Expeditionary Forces, ordered the Army to recruit a contingent of operators in November 1917. More than 7,000 women volunteered for the initial 100 posts.
Grace D. Banker, a 25-year-old Columbia University graduate who had majored in French and history, led the first unit of so-called Hello Girls. (Her story was told last year in an off-Broadway musical.) Banker and the women under her command acquitted themselves with valor and proficiency. In situations where the Army had to rely on men to connect calls, it found that the average doughboy took 60 seconds to complete a task that women did in 10. In wartime, survival can hinge on such increments.
By Nov. 11, 1918, at the signing of the Armistice, the 223 women of the Signal Corps had connected 26 million calls. Some had served within shelling distance of the front, including Banker, whom the Army awarded the Distinguished Service Medal in occupied Germany. Thirty other operators received special commendations, including decorations for the Saint-Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne offensives, the biggest American battles.
The last Signal Corps operators departed France four months after the last U.S. combat unit. Yet when the women arrived home, the Army denied they had been soldiers despite the dog tags on their necks, uniforms on their backs and sworn oaths in their personnel files. Gen. George O. Squier, head of the Signal Corps, pleaded futilely on their behalf. The War Department refused to grant either victory medals or veterans’ bonuses to women. Operators with war-related disabilities fought vainly for hospitalization. Some incurred heavy debts to pay for their own care.
A small group of the women pressed the government for six decades to recognize the female Signal Corps operators as military veterans. By the time such legislation was enacted in 1977, most were long buried, including Grace D. Banker.
Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) now propose to honor the women of the Signal Corps with the Congressional Gold Medal. More senatorial support is needed for the legislation to gain momentum. The House hasn’t mounted a companion bill to Tester and Blackburn’s, but it should join the effort to bestow a public honor that has been a century in the making.
A note to lawmakers: March 1 marked the beginning of Women’s History Month.