100 Years Ago “Hello Girl” Grace Banker receives Distinguished Service Medal
By Carolyn Timbie, granddaughter of Grace Banker
Special to the United States World War One Centennial Commission web site
In 1917, General Pershing, Commander of the American Expeditionary Forces in WW1, made a request for women telephone operators in France. It was apparent that Doughboys, inexperienced in telephony, could not efficiently complete this vital task. In 1918, the U.S. Army Signal Corps sent 223 women telephone operators to France. These women became popularly known as the “Hello Girls”
Grace Banker was the Chief Operator of the first unit of 33 bi-lingual women who embarked for France to support the telephone systems of the American Expeditionary Forces. After spending the first 5 months at General Army Headquarters in Chaumont, Grace banker and a small group of women were chosen to operate the switchboards in the advanced section at First Army Headquarters during the AEF battles of St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne.
The women worked tirelessly during the drives. Grace states in her diary on Sept 25th:
“Busy again. Don’t believe anyone not here can realize what busy means. 11:15 pm, the new drive is on......The cannons are roaring. 12 midnight. Capt. Scott, Miss Russell and myself went outside for a minute to look at the sky. There are great flashes of light all along the horizon like Northern Lights. 2:50am, the night railroad guns are beginning to roar.....such a noise. Worse than a heavy surf in a storm and here there is a beautiful moonlight. The old flimsy barracks shake and the beds rock as though in a miniature earthquake.....”
Grace took great pride in “her girls“. “Resting up after the drive. Never spent more time at the office and never enjoyed anything more. My girls work like beavers” she states in her diary.
Soon word gets out that an Armistice will be signed. She continues:
“I can’t realize that it will be so either. We have lived so long under war conditions that it doesn’t seem that it could come so simply. On Nov. 11th the Armistice was signed at eleven o’clock this morning, the eleventh day, the eleventh hour. All fighting was ordered to cease at that time. Our Corps lines were in bad condition and poor Capt. Beaumont of the telegraph office was having a terrible time. Suppose the message didn’t get through all right. It must get through if not by telegraphs then by telephone. So we put him through on our lines and he used my telephone. He yelled the message out. It had to get through!”
After the Armistice is signed, Grace receives orders to Paris. In Yankee Magazine she describes:
”Hotel life in Paris and all the comforts again, but we didn’t appreciate it at all! We missed the First Army with its code of loyalty and hard work.....President Wilson came back to Paris the second time. I was given charge of the work in his home on the Avenue de Etats-Unis.....The work at the President’s house was not particularly exciting; so when a choice came to stay or go to the Army of Occupation in Coblenz, Germany, I left Paris and went to the Rhine.”
Grace Banker received the Distinguished Service Medal “before a crowd of admiring officers and enlisted men” on May 22nd, 1919 in Coblenz. It was presented to her by Lieutenant General Liggett at Army Headquarters, The Citation reads:
For exceptionally meritorious and Distinguished services. She served with exceptional ability as Chief Operator in the Signal Corps Exchange at General Headquarters, American Expeditionary Forces and later in a similar capacity at First Army Headquarters. By untiring devotion to her exacting duties under trying conditions, she did much to assure the success of the telephone service during the operations of the First army against the St Mihiel salient and the operations to the north of Verdun.
Grace continues, “ Whatever glory May go with that Medal I have always felt belongs in large measure to the very small, but very loyal and devoted group of First Army Girls - Suzanne Prevot, Berthe Hunt, Adele Hoppock, Esther Fresnel, Helen Hill and Marie Lange.”
Grace Banker returned to her home in Passaic, New Jersey, after having served 20 months overseas.