'Hello Girls' answered the call, served as telephone operators in France during WWI
By MEG JONES | Milwaukee Journal Sentinel | Published: February 12, 2018
MILWAUKEE (Tribune News Service) — They were known as the "Hello Girls" — American women fluent in French and English who answered the urgent call for telephone operators needed in France during World War I.
They took oaths to join the U.S. Army Signal Corps, underwent training by AT&T before boarding ships to Europe, heading to war before most of the American doughboys arrived in France, connected 26 million calls and ultimately proved to be a significant factor in winning the war.
And then they were forgotten.
A documentary filmmaker from Wisconsin has created a one-hour film about the American phone operators who served in the Army Signal Corps during World War I to shine a spotlight on a group of brave, selfless women who were not officially recognized for their work until it was too late for most of them.
The film will be shown at the Women's Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia on March 1, almost 100 years to the day the first ship carrying women phone operators left the U.S.
"Telephone technology was really what America brought to the war," said Jim Theres, a Racine native who hopes to bring the film to Wisconsin this year. "Women by World War I had dominated the field as telephone operators. Gen. John Pershing (commander of the American Expeditionary Forces) said we have women who do this in America and I need them over here."
The Army's initial request for 100 volunteers was greeted with 7,600 applications. A total of 223 women — including two with Wisconsin connections — eventually traveled to France.
This was two years before women in America were allowed to vote.
"Every command to advance or retreat or hold fire was delivered by telephone and it took an operator to connect that call," said Elizabeth Cobbs, author of "The Hello Girls: America's First Women Soldiers," published last year.
French officers frequently needed to communicate with American officers and it was the American female phone operators who put those calls through and stayed on the line to act as simultaneous translators. That meant the women handled national security secrets, frequently served near the front lines and came under bombardment, and quickly, efficiently and calmly handled numerous calls.
Male telephone operators, many of whom were disdainful of the job they considered women's work, took as long as 60 seconds to connect a call; when the women arrived, the timing was cut to 10 seconds.
"As one woman wrote — their hands flitted like hummingbirds over the wires," said Cobbs.
The two women with ties to Wisconsin were Martina Heynen of Green Bay and Hildegarde Van Brunt, a California native who settled in Milwaukee in the mid-1920s. Both sailed to France in the second group of phone operators in April 1918.
Van Brunt's mother was born in Paris and taught her daughter to speak French. Van Brunt was 19 when she headed to France and met William Abbott, an American soldier she married after the war. They moved to Milwaukee to run his family's furniture store, said Van Brunt's granddaughter, Elizabeth Goessling.
Goessling has fond memories of her grandmother and knew she served in France during World War I but thought Van Brunt was with the Red Cross. During a recent interview, Goessling learned her grandmother was, in fact, a phone operator.
"I thought she was really cool. She was my favorite. (Her World War I service) was just another cool thing she did," said Goessling, who lives in Madison.
Van Brunt's mother also served in France during the war; Goessling thinks she was a Red Cross volunteer.
Two female operators died in France in the Spanish Flu epidemic, including one woman who died Nov. 11, 1918, the day the war ended. Grace Banker was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, one of only 18 of the 16,000 Army Signal Corps officers to receive the medal one step higher than the Silver Star.
"I think Pershing and the generals recognized the role the women played in helping win the war. They gave one of the 223 women one of the highest awards you could get in World War I," said Cobbs.
In his documentary, Theres interviewed Cobbs, families of several telephone operators, and the current national American Legion commander, Denise Rohan, who is from Wisconsin. Rohan is attending the March 1 premiere of the documentary.
When the war ended, many remained in France or were sent to Germany to continue working phone switchboards through the Treaty of Versailles. The last women returned home in 1920.
Many tried to join veterans groups, including the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars. When they were asked for their Army discharge papers, they contacted the military for the standard forms.
That's when they were told they were not veterans.
It all came down to one word. While Navy and Marines regulations said any person could join the units, the Army was open only to men. While thousands of women served in the Navy and Marines during World War I, none were sent overseas, instead serving honorably in the United States.
But the 223 women who volunteered for the U.S. Army Signal Corps and were sent into harm's way were all told they were actually well-paid civilian contractors, said Theres, a Gulf War veteran who earned degrees at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater and Cardinal Stritch University and now lives in Washington, D.C.
"They were basically told, you didn't serve," said Cobbs. "They didn't get bonuses that every member of the armed forces at home or abroad received. It was the amount of money equivalent to buying a car. The sad thing is some experienced disability from their service, including tuberculosis, and were not allowed to get veterans benefits."
Which was heartbreaking for many of the women. Most got married and started families after they returned home and figured they would never get recognition. Van Brunt's husband died during gall bladder surgery — his business failed during the Great Depression — leaving her a widow at age 39.
"When I think of what my grandmother went through during the Depression when she lost her husband and had two kids, what good that would have helped her being a veteran," said Goessling.
A few of the phone operators petitioned Congress and the military for decades, repeatedly getting rebuffed until the 1970s. When President Jimmy Carter finally signed legislation in 1977 recognizing what should have been done six decades earlier — that the women were indeed veterans — there were only a few dozen Hello Girls still alive. Among them was Van Brunt, who died in 1985 in Milwaukee.
One woman told her family upon hearing the news that the World War I victory medal was nice but that there was only one thing she wanted: an American flag on her coffin when she died.
The remaining Hello Girls were given military burials.
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