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Wisconsin filmmaker creates documentary of WWI female telephone operators

By Meg Jones
via the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel web site

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.

636539658295530615 MJS operators MEG JONES 013Gen. John Pershing, commander of the American Expeditionary Forces in France during World War I, reviews American female telephone operators who provided a critical job during the war connecting phone calls and translating conversations between American and French troops. When the women who served in the Army Signal Corps returned home after the war and tried to join veterans organizations they were told they were civilian contractors and were not veterans. Efforts to get them veteran recognition took more than six decades. (Photo: National Archives)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.

Read the entire article on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel web site:

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