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J'Ecoute: The Story of U.S. Army Signal Corps Telephone Operators in WWI

By Eric Saul
via the web site

Two hundred twenty-three women served as telephone operators in the U.S. Army Signal Corps during World War I.

These were the first women to serve as soldiers in the U.S. Army, specifically in non-nursing roles.

img875U.S. Army Signal Corps women telephone operators in the long distance toll office at La Belle Epine, outside of the gates of Paris, France. Head operator Grace Banker standing background on left. The Army desperately needed bilingual telephone operators to staff the switchboards at various headquarters for the American Expeditionary Forces in France. Few men were found who were capable of this demanding job, so General Pershing called for women to fill these vital wartime positions.

They were enlisted in the Army as official soldiers and given the status of company grade officers. They were sworn into the Army under the Articles of War. They wore regulation U.S. Army uniforms and were subject to Army regulations.

This unique unit was comprised of French-speaking American citizens. They trained in their specialized skill at the AT&T headquarters in Manhattan and at the Signal Corps training facility at Camp Franklin, later Fort Meade, in Maryland.

They served with honor and distinction close to the front lines after they arrived in France in March 1918. They were close enough to the front to be in danger of being shelled by the Germany army. They served in Paris, Chaumont, and numerous other French locations. They also served in Great Britain in London, Southampton, and Winchester. Their service was a vital link between the American and French armies. Their work contributed to the Allied victory over Germany. Several of the women volunteered and served as operators in France after the war and in the Army of Occupation in Germany through 1920.

Chief Telephone Operator Grace Banker received the U.S. Army Distinguished Service Medal for her services. This is the third highest medal that the Army can bestow.

At the conclusion of their service, the Signal Corps telephone operators were given certificates of service rather than the honorable discharge to which U.S. Army soldiers are entitled. To their surprise, they were told that they never, in fact, had official status as soldiers. The Army told them that they were civilian employees of the military. This was contrary to all that they were told at the beginning of the war.

With the exception of Grace Banker, they received no honorable discharges, no campaign medals or victory ribbons for their service overseas. They did not receive the bonus pay that was given to other soldiers in the AEF, and received no pensions or Veterans Administration benefits.

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