By Gary SheftickDecember 19, 2018
WASHINGTON -- When Jim Theres first read about the "Hello Girls" of World War I, he knew the story of America's first female Soldiers needed to be told on the silver screen.
So the Veterans Affairs employee set out on his own time to produce and direct an award-winning documentary, "The Hello Girls: The Army's Special Weapon in World War I."
The film was shown Nov. 3 as part of activities surrounding the grand re-opening of the Army Women's Museum at Fort Lee, Virginia.
Prior to that, the film won best documentary feature last month at the Chagrin Documentary Film Festival in Chagrin Falls, Ohio.
Broadcast journalist Cokie Roberts also introduced the film Oct. 8 at the Washington Convention Center during the Association of the U.S. Army's Annual Meeting and Exposition.
"I had never heard of the 'Hello Girls' and I write women's history," Roberts said. "That shouldn't be."
In 1918, the U.S. Army Signal Corps sent 223 women to France as telephone operators for the American Expeditionary Forces. They donned Army uniforms and swore an oath of allegiance. They often operated near the front lines, connecting calls between trenches, and they endured artillery barrages. Two of them died and were buried in France.
Yet, when the rest of the women returned to the states, they were told they were not eligible for veteran's benefits, until an act of Congress changed that in 1977.
Now their story has finally been fully documented.
Theres had already produced one documentary film when he decided in May 2017 the time was right to look for a World War I story because the 100th anniversary of America's participation in the war was coming up.
"I googled by accident... I meant to do World War I men, but I accidently typed World War I women and I looked at the screen." A webpage popped up about Elizabeth Cobbs' book published last year: "The Hello Girls -- America's First Women Soldiers."
"I read the synopsis and said 'Wow! I've never heard this story.'"
He immediately sent Cobbs an email. She called back later that afternoon and said she'd be in Washington, D.C., July 2, and offered to do an interview. That's how the genesis of the film came about.
Segments of Cobbs' recorded interview appear throughout the film. She's "almost the narrator," Theres said, because her voice is a consistent thread in the documentary.
Others who tell the story include the daughters and granddaughters of the original Hello Girls.
Staff members of the Women in Military Service for America Memorial helped connect Theres and Cobbs to family members of the women who served.
One of those family members is Carolyn Timbie, granddaughter of Grace Banker, who at age 25 became chief telephone operator at First Army headquarters in France.
Banker received the Distinguished Service Medal for her duties with First Army during the St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne Offensives.
Timbie shared her grandmother's story from a diary that had been kept in a safe deposit box. She also shared a trunk of photos, memorabilia and the uniform her grandmother wore in France.
Timbie said she actually never met her grandmother, who died before she was born. Stories about the World War I telephone operators, though, were passed down to her by her father. And when she finally had an opportunity to read her grandmother's diary, she was enamored by the history it told.
"It was just amazing to me," Timbie said following the AUSA screening of the film.
"I had no idea of the scope and magnitude of the story because it had never been told," Timbie said after reading the book that brought experiences of all the women together. She said the film raises the story "another notch" by adding emotion to the history.
Photographs of the Hello Girls appear on screen as their descendants talk about the World War I exploits of the mobile telephone operators.
Along with pictures donated by family members, Theres also obtained photos and rare motion picture clips from the National Archives. A couple of those images show the Hello Girls with Gen. John J. Pershing, AEF commander.
Roberts and others link the right of women to vote in America, granted in 1920, directly to the exemplary service of women in World War I.
"Really, it was finally the role that women were playing both in the military and contributions to the war effort that finally, after a 70-year [suffrage] battle, won the vote for them," Roberts said.
The Hello Girls saved lives. In those days, Signal Corps Soldiers had to string telephone wire between the trenches to enable communications with tactical operations centers. The average time to connect a phone call to a TOC went from 50 seconds to 10 seconds when the Hello Girls arrived.
"And that could mean the difference between life and death," said retired Brig. Gen. Anne Macdonald, president of the U.S. Army Women's Foundation.
If the enemy was launching an assault into allied trenches, it required a telephone operator to connect the call for artillery or reinforcements.
"All telephone calls required at least one human being, one telephone operator," said Shelton Hochheiser, AT&T corporate historian, who was on a panel to answer questions after the film was shown at the Washington Convention Center.
The women connected a total of 26 million calls during the war, Macdonald said.
Most of the female telephone operators were bilingual. Most spoke both French and English fluently, so they helped the allies communicate with each other. In that regard, they played a significant role in helping win the war, she said.
A total of 447 women served as mobile telephone operators across the Army during the war years.
Many of the Hello Girls stayed in Europe operating switchboards after most of the doughboys left. Some of the women served with the Army of Occupation in Germany.
The last of the women returned to the states in 1920, only to be told they had never really served in the Army.
Regulations stated veteran's benefits were due to "men" who served and that one word kept the women from receiving recognition as veterans. They ended up being regarded as contractors.
"So they had no recognition, no benefits, no military funerals, no flags on their coffins, nothing," Roberts said.
Some of the women were persistent in petitioning Congress, though, adamant they had worn uniforms, followed Army regulations and had been part of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Over the years, more than 50 bills were introduced unsuccessfully in Congress to recognize the service of these World War I women.
Finally, on the 60th anniversary of America's entry into World War I, Congress granted veteran's benefits to the 33 Hello Girls who were still alive and directed they be issued honorable discharges.
When 90-year-old Merle Egan Anderson received her discharge paper from the Army in 1978, she reportedly lifted the document to her lips and kissed it.