In a world of easy connectivity, I think it is fair to say we all take for-granted our ability to be instantly connected through our mobile phones. I’ll always remember how simple it was to FaceTime my Mum and show her the view of the Somme from the top of the Thiepval memorial – I wonder what difference having a mobile phone would have made during the First World War? Instead, during the war they had women like Grace Banker, who was the Chief Operator of the U.S Signal Corps’ women telephone operators, that connected the Americans on the Western Front.
Grace Banker was born in New Jersey in 1892. Her Father, an accountant, pushed for Grace’s education and eventually she graduated from Barnard College in New York with a double major in French and History. Banker began working as a telephone operator for the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T) at their headquarters in New York. She rose in the company quickly to work as an instructor in AT&T’s long-distance division – very rare for a woman at that time.
On a Sunday in December 1917, Grace was reading The New York Post when she came across an Army advertisement seeking women who could speak French and English to operate switchboards, which was relatively new technology at the time. The request had come from American General John J. Pershing, who wanted to improve communications on the Western Front between the Allied Forces, it was apparent his ‘Doughboys’ (the nickname of Pershing’s troops) were inexperienced in telephony and couldn’t efficiently complete this vital task.
By early 1918 around 7,000 applicants had been received, whilst 150 were selected for special training and 400 were retained. Grace was accepted and chosen to lead Telephone United No.1, the first unit of “Hello Girls” as their chief operator. The first 33 girls underwent physical training, observed military protocol, collected their identity discs and uniforms that included skirts and bloomers. In March 1918, Grace and her unit set sail for General Pershing’s headquarters in Chaumont, France, the first of 223 women from the U.S. Army Signal Corps sent to 75 different French towns and cities.
“Sailed this morning in a dismal gray drizzle,” Banker wrote in her diary on March 7, 1918. “Watched the Statue of Liberty fade from sight. For the first time, I suddenly realized what a responsibility I have on my young shoulders.”
When foggy conditions forced the ship to dock temporarily along the French coast, soldiers on patrol there mistook it for an enemy vessel, surrounded it and prepared to attack before recognizing their mistake. The unit spent five months at the General Army Headquarters, before Grace and a small group of women were chosen to operate switchboards in the First Army Headquarters during the American Expeditionary Force battles of St. Mihiel and Meuse-Argonne.
These women had the responsibility of communicating secret battle plans between military command, supply depots and emergency calls from the trenches. The job was fast-paced and exhausting. The Signal Corps often connected 150,000 calls a day, and the coded language they used to mask critical details about the Army’s positions and personnel changed frequently to deter the enemy.
“Once in a mad rush of work I heard one of the girls say desperately, ‘Can’t I get Uncle?’ and another, ‘No, I didn’t get ‘Jam.’ It all sounded like the Mad Hatter” Grace wrote. The codes could not be written down for security reasons, so the operators had to memorise them each time they changed. “The work was fascinating; much of it was in codes changed frequently. ‘Ligny’ was ‘waterfall.’ ‘Toul’ might be ‘Podunk’ one day and ‘Wabash’ the next.”
Grace and her unit were within range of Germany artillery, but continued their work throughout as Grace described on 25 September 1918:
“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 recalled the moment of being at the forefront of the Armistice:
“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 Grace received orders to travel to Paris. Though she was reunited with civilian comforts, she “missed the First Army with its code of loyalty and hard work”, as she was posted to oversee the telephone operations at President Wilson’s home, which wasn’t as exciting to work on the front. An opportunity came to Grace to stay in Paris or join the Army occupation in Germany… Grace left for the Rhine.
It was in Koblenz, on the 22nd May 1919, that Grace received the Distinguished Service Medal, one of only 18 Signal Corps members to receive the commendation. The Citation mentioned Grace’s “exceptional ability as Chief Operator in the Signal Corps Exchange at General Headquarters” and “untiring devotion to her exacting duties under trying conditions”. To Grace the award had a different meaning: “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 returned to New Jersey in September 1919, after nearly 20 months of service abroad. The ‘Hello Girls’ did not receive a veteran status or benefits upon their return from war. They were treated as volunteers and discharged. The ‘Hello Girls’ campaigned for the recognition of veterans, with over fifty bills granting them veterans status was rejected. It wasn’t until 1977 when President Jimmy Carter granted the surviving women telephone operators received recognition of their veteran status and benefits. By this point, only 18 of the 233 women were alive. Grace was not one of them. She had passed in 1960, in New York, having had a happy life with four children.
Despite never receiving recognition from the Army in her lifetime, it was clear from an interview Grace gave to The Evening World, of New York, in September 1919 that she had relished serving in the war.
“If you were to ask every girl in my party about her hardships, I know she would answer that she had none worth mentioning,” she said, “and that her work overseas helped her in every way and made her a bigger person than she was before.”