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Waging war for her grandmother: N.H. woman fights to honor WWI's 'Hello Girls'

By MADELINE HUGHES | The Eagle-Tribune | Published: April 11, 2021

ATKINSON, N.H. (Tribune News Service) — As she was helping her parents move from their home a decade ago, Carolyn Timbie of Atkinson stumbled upon what she calls "an amazing treasure trove" of items from World War I.

They included a helmet, a gas mask, uniforms, letters, artillery shells and a clip of ammunition — all things her grandmother had saved from her time at the front lines of the war.

Timbie's grandmother Grace Banker was the chief operator of the U.S. Army Signal Corps women telephone operators. The Signal Corps is a branch of the American military that manages communications for combined armed forces, such as the U.S. Army working with a military group from another country.

Banker died three years before Timbie was born. Now, about 60 years after the death, Timbie is connecting with her grandmother in a special way. She is helping historians and U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan understand the work done by Signal Corps women during the war, when they became known as the Hello Girls.

"It's 100 years later. They should get the full recognition," Timbie said of her hope that Banker and other Signal Corps women are eventually honored with medals for their military service. "Still today, we have women who have to work extra hard for recognition, and so many women identify with this story."

Hassan and a bipartisan group of senators are working to recognize Banker and her fellow Signal Corps women with the Congressional Gold Medal, the highest honor given by Congress.

"Grace Banker and the other Hello Girls were true patriots who answered America's call to action by serving as crucial links between American and French forces on the front lines during World War I," Hassan said, pointing to the women's "brave and selfless service."

Timbie has been sharing her grandmother's story in the military community and beyond. A woman who heard the story and is a colonel in the U.S. Army identified with the tale. She reached out to Timbie to talk about the difference between women in the military now and generations ago.

Timbie said the colonel talks openly about being a lesbian, something she never would have done early in her military career. To do so would have jeopardized her chance to gain leadership positions in the Army, said Timbie, adding the colonel has found inspiration in Banker's story.

Banker was among the women telephone operators recruited into World War I after men in the U.S. Army struggled to connect phone calls quickly or communicate well with their allies in the French military. The U.S. Signal Corps women were sent to France to serve at military headquarters and command posts alongside American fighting forces.

Banker went into the war shortly after graduating from Barnard College. She had been working as a switchboard operator with a telephone company and then became one of the first females recruited as a telephone operator in the war, where she led her unit. In total, 223 women went overseas during the war to operate phones.

"Learning this history has increased my connection with the women in my family," Timbie said.

Timbie's grandmother was an adventurer who wanted to see the world as a single woman. She bucked the trend of getting married young and instead chose to go to the front lines of the war.

"My greatest connection to my grandmother is to seek out adventure and travel," Timbie said.

After returning from the war, Banker settled down and had a family. She and her husband bought a house on Lake Winnipesaukee, which Timbie now visits with her brothers. Looking through family photos and having conversations with her mother, Timbie realized Winnipesaukee is where the adventurous Banker found post-war excitement with her family.

Timbie's mother had a strong relationship with her own mom, Banker, and learned much about her military service through the same trunk of Army items that Timbie now owns. Learning more about her grandmother has strengthened Timbie's relationship with her mother, whom she hasn't been able to visit for the past year because of the pandemic.

As she digs into the past and helps the Congressional Gold Medal effort led by Hassan, D-New Hampshire, Timbie feels even closer to her mother and grandmother. Banker would be "smiling down" to know members of Congress are working to honor the military phone operators, Timbie said, explaining that her grandmother's war letters focused on the team effort at the battlefront.

Banker did receive the Distinguished Service Medal in 1919, but it recognized her service only, not her team's efforts. That medal is presented by the U.S. Army for exceptional service in a duty of great responsibility.

"Whatever glory may go with the medal I have always felt belongs in large measure to the very small, but very loyal and devoted group of First Army girls," Banker wrote in a letter not long after the war, when the women operators returned home in 1919 and as the Women's Suffrage movement was well underway.

The Hello Girls ultimately won the right to vote in the country they served. Their service during the war, however, was seen as civilian, not military.

"They were ten to 15 miles from the front," Timbie said, recalling descriptions contained in letters sent by her grandmother during the war. "They could hear the bombing and artillery fire. They were not without risk."

Banker's letter about her group of "First Army girls" was published in 1974 in Yankee Magazine after her death and as Signal Corps members were seeking recognition as military veterans. In 1977, then-President Jimmy Carter recognized the Hello Girls as veterans of the military.

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