Bay Area Girls at Front During Great Drives - 1918
Where Telephone Girls Live in France. Despite Unpapered Walls, This Room in France in Portable Barracks Has Something of Air of a College Dormitory. It Is a Billet for Signal Corps Telephone Operators in Neufchateau. Photograph by Signal Corps AEF, 1918. National Archives and Records Administration, 111-SC-50699. NARA ID # 86707156. GGA Image ID # 198f2fdf10
How California girls of the bay region working as telephone operators with the American First Army in the great St. Mihiel drive which threw the Germans back on Metz, helped prepare the way for the attack is told in a letter to H. M. Prescott of the San Francisco traffic department of the Pacific Telephone and Telegraph Company by Mrs. B. Matignon Hunt of Berkeley, one of the number.
The letter, which appears in the December 1918 issue of the Pacific Telephone Magazine, is as follows:
My Dear Mr. Prescott: You will be interested to know what some of us have been doing and how well San Francisco is represented in this special group.
Last August, Colonel Hitt, the chief signal officer of the First Army, decided that he wanted women operators with the headquarters of the First Army, so three operators were chosen from the two offices nearest the front in the American sector.
Of the six, three were trained in San Francisco (Helen Hill, Marie Lange, and Bertha Hunt.) Later another was added to the group, Adele Hoppock, who was also trained in San Francisco. The rest of the girls here feel that California rules. We are certainly in the majority and are not loath to praise our wonderful West.
Work with Army
When we became attached to the First Army, we began work with the attacking army, and every time an offensive was prepared, we moved into the district, worked in preparation for the drive, and then during it. Our first experience was at the headquarters chosen for the St. Mihiel drive.
My, how we did long for that drive to begin; we were weeks waiting for it, watching the troops pass, the artillery rumble by, the trucks constantly going day and night -- supplies and men passed continuously until we thought all America had been sent over. Special lines, called "operation lines," were put on our switchboard and were only to be used in connection with the drive.
It was most thrilling to sit at that board and feel the importance of it -- at first, it gave me a sort of "gone" feeling for fear the connection would not be made in time and a few seconds would be lost, but soon the responsibility of it sort of calmed me and, as in all things that occur many times in our lives, became ordinary and lost its thrill.
Plans All Carried Out
The night the drive began, we were called to the office--before that, men operated between 10:00 pm and 7:30 am--and for the three days during the attack, we were on four hours and off four hours. It was a wonderfully planned campaign and carried out in every detail just as planned.
Two of the girls were in St. Mihiel just twenty-four hours after it was taken. The houses were decorated with flags, everyone wore the tricolor, and for days it was one constant fete for those who had been forced to live with the [Germans] for four years.
The Americans were heroes to those poor people, who could not hide their gratitude; they kissed or shook hands with every American they met--(it was more often the former).
For Another Drive
As soon as that was over, we moved again to prepare for the Argonne drive. This time we felt that we had become real soldiers. We were landed in a town shelled by Germans some time back and where very few civilians had remained.
They took us to a camp and showed us our barracks--old French barracks, papered with old maps, wrapping paper, or corrugated paper to cover the cracks.
Happily, these places had been thoroughly fumigated, so we had no trouble with "beasts," as we had had in the last place.
Before night our cots and bedding rolls reached us and the few handgrips we were allowed to bring. We have been very comfortable here and have thoroughly enjoyed the novelty of the experience. We certainly will have a wonderful story to tell when we get back.
Mess with Officers
We are messing with our Signal Corps officers and are one big family--seven operators, [our] YWCA chaperon, and the staff. Our board is different again.
We found a central already established, a sort of Franco-American office. (it is so funny to see these American and French soldiers sitting side by side and working, trying to make each other understand; as soon as a call comes in a language that isn't understood, it is frantically passed to the other operator.)
That Franco-American office was left as it was and became the "utility board," while a small three-position board was installed for us, and we are working "operations" only -- that means air service, artillery, chief of staff, signals, and G-II and G-III of operations.
We are having night duty and working with very little relief, but the work doesn't seem to hurt any of us as we are growing fat and look most healthy.
Though our rooms are just barrack rooms, the Engineers have made us shelves galore, dressing stands in the corners, and even salvaged a piano from a German dugout for us; the YMCA has bought us some chairs for a restroom, basins, cups, blankets, and a few comforts for our rooms, so you see we aren't to be pitied--the novelty of the experience well makes up for any discomforts we have to endure.
We are now looking forward to peace, and then we will no longer be the attacking army, but the "army of occupation"--what we will do in Germany when we get there!--remains to be seen.
Know No German
Our knowledge of French here in this section has been an absolute necessity; we deal as much with French as with Americans, so if we go to Germany, we will be handicapped in not knowing that language, too. Oh, these daydreams of the days after victory give courage and hope to go on to the end.
You never saw such wonderful spirit as our boys show--they smile in the midst of mud, cold, and the greatest discomforts; though they are all anxious to be home, there isn't a one who would leave until the "job" is done, and the victory won.
All good wishes to those who took such a kindly interest in us while in training.
/s/ B. Matignon Hunt
"BayGirls at Front During Great Drives," in the Oakland Tribune, Oakland, California, Sunday, 29 December 1918, p. 15.