Women have always served as a crucial part of First Army and its history. After the arrival of the American Expeditionary Forces (AEF) in France, it quickly became apparent there was a need for bilingual telephone operators. In an effort to men available to fight on the front line, the Army recruited women to serve as telephone operators.
Recruiters started seeking experienced female commercial telephone operators from companies across the United States. However, due to the rapidly expanding need, recruitment included training for non-experienced operators to fill the growing demand. The first group of civilian female telephone operators to serve with the AEF arrived in Paris in early 1918. Just over 200 female telephone operators ultimately served in France with the First, Second, and Third Army Headquarters. The women worked in Paris and dozens of other locations throughout France and England. They were nicknamed the “Hello Girls,” since “Hello” was the common term used when callers rang the switchboard instead of dialing a telephone number directly.
The Hello Girls worked long hours, often at stressful locations such as First Army Headquarters during active offensive operations. The Hello Girls successfully performed all their assigned duties saving lives - in many cases by maintaining rapid telephone communications. The average time to connect a phone call from a front-line trench to a command operations center averaged 50 seconds prior to the arrival of the Hello Girls but was subsequently dropped to an average of 10 seconds after 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. In another show of their dedication to duty, women of the Female Telephone Operator’s Unit, First Army Headquarters, had to be forcibly evacuated from their stations during the Meuse-Argonne campaign after their building caught fire. Once back at their posts, the women restored operations within an hour.
They subsequently earned a commendation from the Chief Signal Officer of First Army, Maj. Gen. Owen Squier, who cited the women’s “unquestioned superiority” as switchboard operators and their dedicated service to the nation. His report of the Chief Signal Officer in 1919, declared that, “The use of women operators throughout the entire war was decidedly a success.” Through the course of the war the Hello Girls connected a total of 26 million calls.
Grace Banker, at age 25, became the Chief Telephone operator for all First Army operations in France, overseeing 20 other female operators. Banker would receive the Distinguished Service Medal for her duties with First Army during the Saint-Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne Offensives and the subsequent fire.
A total of 447 women served as mobile telephone operators across the Army between April 1917 and November 1918. Many of the Hello Girls stayed in Europe operating switchboards after most of the Doughboys left, serving with the Army of Occupation in Germany. The female operators returned home after the war with little recognition and no veterans’ benefits.
Only in 1978 did legislation award the operators veterans’ status. Despite the regrettable lag in official recognition, proponents of the gender integration of the Army during World War II often cited the Signal Corps’ successful employment of the “Hello Girls.” Their story is just one of many highlighting the dedicated service of women throughoutFirst Army history.