Impressions of the A. E. F. by Signal Corps Operator O'Rourke - 1919
Miss Mary C. O'Rourke, Signal Corps Operator, "Fourth Unit," American Expeditionary Force, in a Riding Habit. The Telephone Review, October 1919. GGA Image ID # 1925dd2700
Together with thousands of others of the A. E. F., I found coming back to our dear U. S. and to civilian pursuits something of a jolt.
For several weeks I felt myself a misfit, even in the bosom of my devoted family, and that is how fifteen months of army life has affected my previous years of undisturbed tranquillity as a civilian.
Nothing will ever efface the memory of those months in France; at every turn one finds reminders. Even the uniform is fraught with subtle memories, derived not alone from the service stripes and shoulder insignia, which, in my case, is the fleur-de-lis of Paris, scathingly referred to by combat troops as the "White Feather."
On my dressing table is a cushion bristling with insignia of rank from Lieutenant's bars to Colonel's eagles, diminutive tanks, flying wings thought fully mounted on pins for a lady's convenience, gas service and staff in signia, various infantry and artillery numerals, buttons of French and British service, and even the shoulder crescent of a little Waac who was my neighbor at one time in the hospital.
While every member of the A. E. F. values and treasures his mementos of happy fellowships, there is always an inner current of sadness at the fright ful scenes of suffering which always attend upon war, and which were particularly frightful in this war.
As I turn over the accumulation of papers carefully preserved in what we called a money belt, but what was in reality rather a portfolio for dearth of francs. I find lying side by side the first and last chapters of the great serial. The first sheet I read begs to advise "dear Madam" that Mr. Somers, President of the Board of Education, is in receipt of communication from Mr. Whalen, secretary to Mayor, reading:
"The Mayor to-day approved the application of Miss M. C. O'Rourke, teacher, for permission to enlist in the U. S. A." The latter reads: "On the occasion of your departure to the U. S., the 'Chief Signal Officer, A. E. F., desires me to commend," etc.
From Public School Teacher to Operator
Of the volumes interlying I can only hint at— it doesn't seem possible that so much can have befallen in a mere fifteen months. It was a considerable transition from public school teacher to telephone operator, from the voice with the frown, alas, to the voice with the smile,—from teacher to learner.
I'll pass over that early period on this side and come to our actual practice in France as graduate operators. My first assignment was Tours, the charmed S. O. S. Headquarters.
It came as a great disappointment at a time when all eyes were eagerly looking toward the advance sections. It has lately come to my knowledge that my family was operating upon influential friends at Washington to keep me out of range of enemy guns.
However, Tours turned out to be a delightful niche for real work. I was long distance recorder, handling from 500 to 800 calls daily, and it was mine to oil ruffled waters caused by delays and by the vagaries of French Central; to squelch pert corporals demanding preferred service on highly original pretexts, or to tactfully restore calm to irate rank, or still again to firmly characterize a call from Captain X to Countess B as hardly official and therefore not to be considered.
All Kinds of Calls
Very soon "Long Distance" had become a character in the barracks life and was laughingly discussed in offices and billets as a young lady not to be hoodwinked. I recall one corporal who had long been branded in the office as a telephone nuisance.
He received my statement of a two-hours' delay on Chaumont circuit with bad grace and promptly demanded preference service, which I as promptly refused.
He called in frequently for reports as to the progress of his call, couching his query something like this, and in an unpleasantly whining voice, "Operator, I've been waiting 30 minutes for Chaumont; you said there will be two hours' delay. When shall I get it?"
Each time I'd reply, "By arithmetic I should say 1 hour, thirty minutes," always giving him an exact subtraction between the two hours and the time he had so far waited, to his infinite annoyance.
Sometimes we had an aviator in trouble forcibly landed in some French town and desiring to communicate with his Base. One day a very agitated small British voice asked with great diffidence for the "Brittish flying school at Vendome."
He cheerfully confided his name upon request as "Leftenant . . . ," but when I asked his number he hesitated. "My numbah?" he queried. "Must you have it? Wait a moment."
I waited several moments after which he read off to my astonished ears a number of six figures. We had some thing under 500 telephones in Tours, so I wondered ; argued ; he assured me.
We verified several times, but I was mystified until astute questioning revealed that he had given me his metal check number and indeed had been obliged to open several garments at the throat to do it. I soon came to have many friends on the line.
To a stentorian "This is Major Balsh," the operator could fre quently add the rest of the data, i.e., "at M. 409, calling Colonel T. Ch. and if he's not there will you speak with Major M.?"
This never failed to please, and was a mute witness to the prominence of the Major calling. "Long Distance" won fame as a memory expert.
Later, I was assigned to Paris, quitting Tours on the 17th of March and remaining, like the Lady from Cork, "long enough to get the accent." In Paris I became special operator between the President's House and Elysee Palace and talked with many celebrated persons, American and foreign, among the former being Colonel House, Mr. Hoover, Miss Margaret and Mrs. Wilson, the latter of whom always prefaced her wants with "Nice little girl, will you get me, et cetera."
Then I became "Information" at Elysee Palace, where I wrestled with questions of myriad sorts from the Czecho-Slavic situation to the probable winners in the Inter-Allied Rowing Meet on the Seine, until one day an inspired C. O. invented a phrase which alleviated my distress as falling short of omniscience.
The magic phrase is, "We disperse only telephone information. Sir." Fancy being asked where one may borrow a saw, or what is the rate of exchange on the Paris Bourse or innumerable questions concerning francs and centimes.
When the time drew near for the meeting of the Conference at Versailles, the men of the Signal Corps undertook the installation of telephone facilities at the Palace, and it was my good fortune to assist as "liaison" between the French and A. E. F., a task which gave me entree to the vaulted, tomblike passages under the palace, ordinarily withheld from tourists and sightseers.
It was not, however, all work and no play. The social situation was brilliant and the possibilities when on leave were boundless. No tourist will ever see France quite as did the American young lady war workers on leave.
The playground of princes is open to her. The Riviera, Cotes d'Azure, the gold and turquoise glory of the Mediterranean; the crystal splendor of Chamonix of the High Alps, Grenoble watering places, notably Biarritz, St. Malo, and the Spanish and Italian borders;— all are hers.
A Trip to Spain
During my stay at Biarritz, I visited a little town two miles from Spain called Luchon. Through the graciousness. of the C. O. and P. Marshal of the Leave Area, a trip on horseback was arranged into Spain, a trip which led us from the sunny green of the valley over the High Pyranees above the perpetual snow line, and down the defile six miles into Spain.
Sometimes the horses were kneedeep in water and ice floe, sometimes the trail was a mere six inches wide along an ever-mounting precipice, with the snow many feet high on one side.
We could make snowballs with out dismounting and hurl them down into the abyss. I think this, together with my aeroplane ascents, were the high climactic spots in my experience.
An Adventure in the Air
That brings me to the mention of a paper I still treasure, albeit with a sigh for the tragedy that followed. It's a rough map indicating directions to a field discretely distant from the Aviation Camp on the Loire River.
It carries minute instructions and precautions. Map in hand and riding solitary on a fine horse, I arrived a little before an aeroplane. It flew low, the pilot discovered me, and made a landing.
Then I was whirled to Blois in twenty ecstatic minutes, two hours distant by railroad, back again to the field and the Sergeant who was holding my horse, and thence home.
We had been very quiet about the ad venture, but it somehow leaked out that a young lady had been seen in a plane and Lieutenant Tommy was to be court-martialed, "busted" and returned to the States.
I heard about it next evening from the Chief Personnel Officer of the Air Service, whom I had known very well in New York. I was conscience-stricken, and on an impulse I admitted that I was the girl and begged that the Lieutenant be exonerated at any cost.
By that in describable sorcery known to the Army, no action was taken and the affair blew over. You may believe the Lieutenant was grateful to me; so grateful, in fact, that we flew again a short time after.
The tragedy came some months after the armistice, when a crash over Switzerland instantly killed the same pilot who had seen many days of distinguished service over the enemy lines, and had come through unscathed. Thus unhappily were many delightful friendships cut off both beforehand after the cessation of hostilities."
Proud to Belong to Signal Corps
I cannot stop without offering the greatest tribute to the gentlemen of the Signal Corps, both officers and enlisted men. Nothing which I can say would be so significant as the facts which are a matter of statistics.—
Firstly, the Signal Corps won a greater number of decorations for dis tinguished service than ahy other branch, and secondly, they contributed the largest sum to the war orphan fund at Christmas, —exactly 78,000 francs.
These facts connote the two great extremely opposite virtues of valor and kindness of heart; one can surmise all the others intervening in the scale.
The telephone units are proud to belong to the Signal Corps. I don't know whether any of your correspondents have written of our Christmas in France. It was aChristmas to scandalize even the most liberal of spugs.
Everybody was imbued with the spirit. There was an in credible currency in local gifts and a new furor over each separate 9 by 4 by 3 special that arrived from home.
There were dances for officers and men and a Christmas tree for the orphans and children of the neighborhood.
On the eve of the great day, quaint wooden sabots were finding their way to the hearth in the salon of the hotel; and many more arrived late that night when the little feet that could ill dispense with one shoe had retired to sleep.
Indeed, the next morning some of the little people made their way to the hotel wearing but one shoe and were prompt to don the other after having investigated its contents.
It seems that the Signal Corps couldn't overlook its "Hello Girls." Their inspiration took the form of a charming book inscribed "Memento to the Telephone Operators' Unit, A. E. F."
It contains photographs of Gen. Pershing and other notables and several of the higher telephone officers in the A. E. F., and a collection of greetings and tributes to the telephone girls from high ranking men in the A. E. F. in Army, Navy, and Consular service.
All were very flattering appreciations of the work and the character of the women engaged in it. The idea was very generously conceived and was elaborately worked out at a cost of much time and effort.
In addition, they were presented individually to the girls with a very pretty ceremony. You may be sure that every Signal Corps girl regards it as the treasure of her war possessions.
It has been a great pleasure to set down these reflections and to live through them again during these terrible days when the malign influence of St. Swithin is conducive to the inner life of revery.
Many thanks, though belated, to the New York Telephone Company for those lovely Maillard, chocolates that boarded the S. S. Lapland with the , Fourth Unit last June. Many of the girls clipped off the box covers for calendars and they marked off there on the days till their return to the United States.
Mary C. O'Rourke, "Impressions of the A. E. F." in The Telephone Review, Vol. 10, No. 10, October 1919, pp. 230-231