100 Years On, The 'Hello Girls' Are Recognized For World War I Heroics

Nov 9, 2018
Originally published on November 12, 2018 7:30 am

In a rehearsal space near New York's Times Square, the cast is preparing for the opening of a musical, The Hello Girls, that's been a century in the making.

"Very few people have heard this story," said Cara Reichel, director of the production that premieres off-Broadway on Nov. 13, two days after the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I.

Reichel hadn't heard of the Hello Girls either, until a few years ago. Here's how she describes them:

"America's first women soldiers, the first women to serve actively in the military, who were bilingual French-English translators, who served on the front lines in World War I" as telephone operators.

So how did these brave women make it to the muddy and bloody fields of France for the war's most important battles?

The short answer is male incompetence.

In the first modern, high-tech war, Gen. John "Black Jack" Pershing, the top U.S. commander, needed skilled operators who could travel with him and maintain contact with troops scattered over hundreds of miles.

"He rapidly discovered that these doughboys, as they were called, were not very quick," said historian Elizabeth Cobbs, author of the book, The Hello Girls, which came out last year.

In addition, she said, "it was a sex-segregated occupation. So the men were a little resistant to doing this girls' kind of job."

So Pershing appealed for women — against objections from his own Army.

"The Army hated the idea of using women. Just hated it," Cobbs said.

But young American women loved it. Thousands responded to newspaper ads in the U.S.

"So they recruited women who not only were crackerjack at telephone operating, and who also spoke French who were 'bilingual wire experts,' as the Army called them," added Cobbs.

Within months, the first group sailed to France. Eventually, 223 would serve. Communications improved dramatically.

"It took a man 60 seconds on average to make a connection. It took a woman 10 seconds," said Cobbs.

A small group of women served at Pershing's headquarters, near the front and within German artillery range. None was injured or killed directly by the fighting, though two died after contracting the Spanish flu.

Their leader was Grace Banker, just a couple years out of Barnard College and an operator at AT&T when she volunteered.

"I'm just in awe of my grandmother and really what courage and leadership she had in working with these women," said Banker's granddaughter, Carolyn Timbie, who is 53 and lives in New Hampshire. But even Timbie didn't know the full story until recently.

The women apparently were not known as the Hello Girls during the war. According to Doran Cart, senior curator at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City, Mo., the first use of the term he's uncovered was in a newspaper article that appeared two years after the war, in 1920.

Cart says he believes the term was used "to put women in their place, to call them girls, to show that they were not as important as the men who were serving in the war."

However, their contribution was not lost on Gen. Pershing. Photos show him reviewing the women and pinning medals on them shortly after the war.

Grace Banker was among a select few, male or female, to win the Distinguished Service Medal. And when the women returned to their hometowns, many were recognized for their extraordinary service.

But when they applied for veterans' status and benefits, "the Army decided they were contract workers and said to them, 'Well, you were very well paid, miss. You know, you don't need to worry about this,'" said Cobbs.

The women petitioned one president after another, from Franklin Delano Roosevelt in the 1930s to Jimmy Carter in the 1970s. Finally, in 1977, six decades after the war ended — and after most of the Hello Girls had died — they were finally recognized as Army veterans.

Cobbs described the remarks of one survivor, Merle Egan, delivered to the Army when she was at last recognized as a veteran: "I deserve this medal not just for serving in France, but for fighting the U.S. Army for 60 years and winning.'"

This vindication seemed to be the end of the story.

But a couple years ago, Cobbs started working on her book and tracked down Carolyn Timbie, the granddaughter of Grace Banker

Timbie had a trunk in New Hampshire with her grandmother's stuff, but had never really given it a close look.

"It just was this treasure trove of all these things my grandmother had kept from 100 years ago," said Timbie.

The contents included Banker's uniform, her helmet and gas mask as well as a range of items she collected from battlefields after the fighting stopped, such as cigarette lighters, shell casings and bullets.

And Timbie also had her grandmother's diary.

So the Hello Girls are making a comeback. The book by Cobbs was well received. Then came a documentary. Now there's a novel, Girls On The Line, based on their story. Two U.S. senators have proposed a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal.

And director Cara Reichel's team is fine-tuning the musical, which opens Tuesday.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This Sunday marks a hundred years since the end of World War I. It is a war that marked many firsts. Among them, it was the first time American women served in uniform as part of the war effort. They were called the Hello Girls. NPR's Greg Myre reports on their forgotten story, a story that's making a comeback.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: One, two, three.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #1: (Singing) We've been pressed and assessed, and we've passed every test, but we aren't in the Army yet.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: In a rehearsal space near New York's Times Square, the cast is preparing for next week's opening of a musical, "The Hello Girls," which has been a century in the making.

CARA REICHEL: Very few people have heard this story.

MYRE: Director Cara Reichel hadn't heard of the Hello Girls either until a few years ago. Here's how she describes them.

REICHEL: America's first women soldiers, the first women to serve actively in the military, in the Army who were bilingual - French-English translators who served on the front lines in World War I.

MYRE: So how did these women make it to the muddy and bloody fields of France for the war's most important battles? The short answer is male incompetence. The top U.S. commander, General John Black Jack Pershing, needed skilled phone operators who could travel with him and maintain contact with troops scattered over hundreds of miles.

ELIZABETH COBBS: He rapidly discovered that these doughboys, as they were called, were not very quick.

MYRE: Historian Elizabeth Cobbs is the author of the book "The Hello Girls" which came out last year.

COBBS: The men were all a little resistant to, you know, doing this girls' kind of job.

MYRE: So Pershing appealed for women against objections from his own army.

COBBS: The Army hated the idea of using women, just hated it.

MYRE: But young women loved it. Thousands responded to newspaper ads, and eventually 223 served. Communications improved dramatically.

COBBS: It took a man 60 seconds on average to make a connection. It took a woman 10 seconds.

MYRE: Their leader was Grace Banker, just a couple years out of Barnard College and an operator at AT&T when she volunteered. Banker's granddaughter is Carolyn Timbie.

CAROLYN TIMBIE: I'm just in awe of my grandmother and really what courage and leadership she had and working with these women.

MYRE: But even she didn't know the full story until recently. And we'll get to that in a moment. General Pershing did recognize their importance. Photos show him pinning medals on the women after the war. Grace Banker was among a select few, male or female, to win the Distinguished Service Medal. When the women returned to their hometowns, many were recognized for their extraordinary service. But author Elizabeth Cobbs explains what happened when they applied for veteran status and benefits.

COBBS: The Army decided they were contract workers and said to them, well, you were very well-paid, miss. You know, you don't need to worry about this.

MYRE: The women pressed one president after another.

COBBS: They wrote Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy (laughter), Nixon, et cetera all the way up to Carter.

MYRE: In 1977, six decades after the war and after most of the Hello Girls had died, they were finally recognized as Army veterans. This vindication seemed to be the end of the story. But a couple years ago, Cobb started on her book and tracked down Carolyn Timbie, the granddaughter of Hello Girl Grace Banker. Timbie had a trunk in New Hampshire with her grandmother's stuff but had never really given it a close look.

TIMBIE: Because it just was this treasure trove of all these things my grandmother had kept from a hundred years ago.

MYRE: Such as...

TIMBIE: The uniform, the helmet, the gas mask. We have a lot of things she collected from the battlefields - cigarette lighters, shell casings, some bullets.

MYRE: And a diary. So the Hello Girls are making a comeback - first the book, then came a documentary. Two U.S. senators are proposing a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal. And the cast is fine-tuning the musical, which opens off Broadway next Tuesday.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #2: (Singing) But are we in the Army?

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #3: (Singing) Are we in the Army?

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #2: (Singing) Are we in the Army?

MYRE: Sounds like they're ready.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #2: (Singing) You bet.

MYRE: Greg Myre, NPR News, New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF PAPDOSIO'S "MR. TURTLES CLOUD KINGDOM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.