The Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit, known as the “Hello Girls”, was a unit of women who operated telephone switchboards, sworn into the U.S. Army Signal Corps, during World War I. The term, “Hello Girls”, was used for women who first greeted callers with the word “hello”. The corps was formed due to a call by General John J. Pershing in 1917 to improve communications on the Western front. With this call, over 7,000 women applied and 223 women were accepted into the unit. Many of them had backgrounds in telephone communications working at different telephone companies. The women trained at different camps throughout the U.S., including Camp Grant, IL; Camp Fort Meade, MD; Camp Dodge, IA; Camp Devens, Ayers, MA; and Camp Lewis, WA. The unit completed their training at Camp Franklin, MD.
Under the lead Chief Operator, Grace Banker, the first telephone operators left for Europe in March 1918. Before long, the “Hello Girls” were operating telephone switchboards and exchanging calls of the American Expeditionary Forces in many French and British locations, including Paris, Chaumont, London, Southampton, and Winchester. Telephone communications improved by July 1918 due in part to the addition of more women operators. A team of telephone operators maintained communications during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive. The “Hello Girls” continued their service after the Armistice. They were transferred to Paris and began being discharged in 1919. The final operator was discharged on January 20, 1920. Chief Operator Grace Banker was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.
Although the “Hello Girls” served in the military, wore Army uniforms, and subjected to Army regulations, they were denied honorable discharge papers because they were considered civilian employees by the Army. Between 1927 and 1977, many bills were introduced to Congress to obtain recognition for the “Hello Girls”. One of the “Hello Girls”, Merle Egan Anderson, continued these efforts in the 1970s along with the Veteran Affairs Administration and the American Legion. Their efforts finally persuaded Congress to pass a bill and was signed into law by President Jimmy Carter in November 1977. 60 years after the end of World War I, the “Hello Girls” were finally recognized as veterans and received their honorably discharged papers.
The photographs selected for this post are from the American Unofficial Collection of World War I Photographs, 1917-1918 (165-WW) and Photographs of American Military Activities, ca. 1918 – ca. 1981 (111-SC). Within 165-WW, which is fully digitized and available via our online catalog, there are two files relating to the “Hello Girls” (Women’s Activities – Industry – Army Telephone Operators and Signal Corps – Apparatus – Telephone Operators – Women). There are no copyright restrictions on these photographs.