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Hello Girls: Signal Service Operators

When the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) landed in France in April of 1917, U. S. General John J. “Blackjack” Pershing was faced with many strategic challenges. One of them was the state of the French telephone system. Structurally damaged from three years of war, the French operators could not be depended on for reliable interpretations of orders and were not up to the quality of work provided by the superiorly trained American operators. Using enlisted male army personnel did not solve problem as they were unable to handle the stress and volume of calls. But Pershing knew who should be recruited to fix the system.

Early in 1918, it was advertised nationally that bilingual female volunteers were needed for the war effort.  By spring, more 7,000 women had applied.

Officially termed Signal Service Operators but christened the “Hello Girls” by the Army’s Stars and Stripes newspaper,  they received pay comparable to their male enlisted counterparts but were required to pay between $300 and $500 to provide their own uniforms which included a dark blue Norfolk jacket and matching long skirt. Training consisted of eight hour days in telephone offices and studies in the geography of the western front. Operators were subject to following military regulations and subject to military justice.

Hartford hosted a twelve member contingent of Signal Service Operators who arrived in August of 1918 to train at the Highland Court Hotel. The women came from varied backgrounds. Belgian born Gabrielle Toby, who trained here with sister Helene, managed to escape Brussels the evening before Germany occupied the city on August 20, 1914. Jeanne Bourquin lost her brother Fernad was killed in Arras and she vowed to avenge his death with her service. Aurelie Asten was volunteered while attending the Harvey Dunn Illustration School in Leonia, NJ. Her father’s factory in France was destroyed in a Zeppelin attack. Mathilde Ferrie hailed from San Francisco where her home was destroyed in the 1906 earthquake.

450 were trained and 233 served abroad. Although seven operators would receive Distinguished Service Medals for bravery in duty, most of the operators felt betrayed when they were told upon leaving the service that they had not, in the eyes of the Army, ever been enlisted and were therefore not entitled to discharges, Victory Medals or any service benefits. Led by operator Merle Egan Anderson, the twenty surviving Hello Girls received Army discharges (although not retroactive) in 1979.

To learn more about the Hello Girls, view this video of author Elizabeth Cobbs (The Hello Girls: America's First Woman Soldiers) from the National Archives McGowan Theater Book Lecture Series: