Contact the GG Archives

Atlanta, Georgia USA

Recognition of the "Hello Girls" for VA Benefits - 1977

Part of the First Unit of Telephone Operators to Go to France, Shown Wearing Their Service Overcoats.

Part of the First Unit of Telephone Operators to Go to France, Shown Wearing Their Service Overcoats. The Telephone Review, March 1918. GGA Image ID # 19205d8939

WEDNESDAY, MAY 25, 1977 U . S. SENATE, COMMITTEE ON VETERANS' AFFAIRS, Washington, D. C. The Committee met, pursuant to notice, at 9:15 am, in room 318, Russell Office Building, Hon. Alan Cranston, Chairman, presiding. Present: Chairman Alan Cranston and Senators Jennings Randolph, Spark M. Matsunaga, Robert T. Stafford, Strom Thurmond, and Clifford P. Hansen.

[From the Congressional Record, Vol. 123, No. 71, S-6602-04— Senate, Apr. 28, 1977]

S. 1414—A Bill To Provide Service Credit For Certain Services in Telephone

Operating Units; Signal Corps; to the Committee on Veterans’ Affairs

Mr. Durkin. Mr. President, almost 60 years ago, a group of 223 women served In "Telephone Operating Units" of the Army Signal Corps in France during and after World War I.

Sixty years later, only 60 of these women who served our Nation in time of war are still alive. The bill I am introducing today will provide recognition and veterans' benefits to these fine women who sacrificed of their lives, as did all veterans of World War I.

The names of French towns such as Verdun, Chaumont, and Ligny are now well known in the histories of World War I. The women who served in the telephone operating units of the Army Signal Corps were placed in such towns. These Signal Corps women were sworn into the Armed Forces with the same oath as all other military enlistees.

They enlisted for the duration of the war and served as members of the Army. The women were subject to court-martial under the Code of Military Justice, and one woman was, in fact, court-martialed and sent back to the States for discharge.

I cite these facts to illustrate that the women of the telephone operating units were active members of the armed services, must be recognized as such, and receive the same benefits.

Mr. President, the women who served in the telephone operating units of the Army Signal Corps, rose to the occasion when they were needed in World War I. It is time that this Nation provides these valiant women with the recognition that they justly deserve.

Let me add that this bill is supported by the National Coalition for Women and Defense, which is comprised of the National Organization of Women, the American Civil Liberties Union Women's Project, and the Women's Equity Action League Fund.

Information supplied by the Department of the Army indicates that these telephone operators' employment was intended to be, and in fact did remain, civilian in character.

In granting the authority to engage their services, the Secretary of War on November 20, 1917, instructed the Chief Signal Officer that ... these women will be civilian employees of the Signal Corps ... Since they are authorized by contract and not by Army Regulations, paragraphs of Army Regulations will not be quoted in contracts as authority for privileges and allowances ..."

They were never "sworn in" as military members of the units involved but rather took the same oath prescribed by law as did all civilian employees. The Army has also found that the telephone operators were subject to the laws of war only to the extent as were all civilians accompanying an army in the field. Of the approximately 223 who went abroad, 12 operators resigned.

The wearing of a distinctive uniform was prescribed. However, these were not issued by the Army, although the regulation cloth for them was sold by the Quartermaster Department.

The value and quality of service performed by the brave women who volunteered for overseas employment as Signal Corps telephone operators are well documented.

However laudatory their endeavors, the circumstances of their employment and that of other civilians differed significantly from that of service in the armed forces proper, for example, in the former's right to resign at will. Veterans' Administration benefits are intended to recognize and compensate for the unique demands of a military commitment.

Based upon the small number of potential recipients which would be affected, it is our estimate that the cost of S. 1414, if enacted, would be insignificant.

Enactment of this bill would be a departure from the general policy of restricting veterans' benefits to persons who served m the Armed Forces proper and to their dependents. Accordingly, and in view of the discriminatory and precedential aspects of this bill, the Veterans' Administration opposes its enactment.

Advice has been received from the Office of Management and Budget that there is no objection to the presentation of this report from the standpoint of the Administration's program.

Sincerely,
Max Cleland, Administrator.

pp. 18-19

COMMITTEE ON VETERANS’ AFFAIRS, U.S. SENATE

Department of the Army, Washington, D.C., June 10, 1977.
Hon. Alan Cranston,
Chairman, Committee on Veterans' Affairs,
U.S. Senate, Washington, D.C.

Dear Mr. Chairman:

Reference is made to your request to the Secretary of Defense for the views of the Department of Defense with respect to S. 1414, 95th Congress, a bill "To provide service credit for certain services in telephone operating units; Signal Corps." The Secretar}' of Defense has delegated to the Department of the Army the responsibility for the preparation of a report on this bill.

The first portion of the bill, while stating it would amend section 1041 of chapter 53, title 10, United States Code, would, in fact, add a new section 1041 to provide that "In computing years of active service of any female member of the Armed Forces, there shall be credited for all purposes, except the right to promotion in addition to any other service that might be credited, all services performed during World War I by any female citizen of the United States who was sworn in as a member of the telephone operating units, United States Army."

The second portion of the bill would amend section 106 of title 38, United States Code, which is administered by the Veterans' Administration.

The Department of the Army, on behalf of the Department of Defense, is opposed to the first portion of the bill for the reasons set forth below and defers to the views of the Veterans' Administration with regard to that part of the bill which would affect title 38, United States Code.

By message to the War Department (Chief Signal Officer) dated November 8, 1917, General Pershing requested the organization of telephone operating units, composed of women telephone operators, to solve the problem of obtaining properly qualified men. He recommended that the operators be given allowances equivalent to Army nurses and that they be in uniform. On November 13, 1917, the Chief Signal Officer requested authority to organize the telephone operating units. The Secretary of War granted this authority and instructions to the Chief Signal Officer on November 20, 1917 said:

"... These women will be civilian employees of the Signal Corps and will have the privileges and allowances now prescribed or which may hereafter be prescribed by Army Regulations and General Orders for Army nurses as to Transportation of extra baggage; rations and quarters; commutation of rations, fuel and quarters; medical attendance: sleeping car and steamer accommodations; and purchase of subsistence stores. These privileges and allowances will be specified in detail in the contracts under which these employees are engaged. Since they are authorized by contract and not by Army Regulations, paragraphs of Army Regulations will not be quoted in contracts as authority for privileges and allowances ..."

The Chief Signal Officer also was directed to recommend a suitable uniform for these women—different from the uniforms of the Army Nurse Corps.

In a report to the Adjutant General, dated October 1, 1931, the Chief Signal Officer stated that the operators entered Government service pursuant to Executive Order No. 2617, dated May 11, 1917, and were hired through the various telephone companies in the United States. Approximately 223 went abroad, and of this number, 12 operators resigned.

Department records fail to show that the women concerned were ever "sworn in" as members of the telephone operating units. Instead, the records show that they took the oath prescribed by law for civilian employees.

The operators served in limited and restricted capacities were not under arms or subject under any circumstances to armed service and were subject to the laws of war only as civilians accompanying an Army in the field.

When their services were no longer required by the American Expeditionary Forces, all actions terminating their service originated with the Signal Corps Civilian Personnel Branch.

These women were civilian employees, similar to other civilian employees working for the military overseas during World War I.

Numerous citizens of the United States, both men, and women performed meritorious service as civilian employees with the American Expeditionary Forces as stenographers, typists, and clerks; as laboratory, These women were civilian employees similar to other civilian employees working for the military overseas during World War I.

Numerous citizens of the United States, both men, and women performed meritorious service as civilian employees with the American Expeditionary Forces as stenographers, typists, and clerks; as laboratory employees, technicians, dietitians, and construction aides; with the Medical Service, the Quartermaster Corps, Ordnance Corps, Engineer Corps." Air Corps,' 'as well as the Signal Corps. S. 1414, if enacted, could be an unattractive precedent which these former civilian employees could use to request similar legislation for themselves.

As written, the bill benefits only those female employees who became active members of the Armed Forces after terminating their service as telephone operators. This interpretation comes from the opening phrasé of the bill, which says "years of active service of any female member of the Armed Forces."

The fiscal effects of this legislation are not known to the Department of Defense.

This report has been coordinated with the Department of Defense in accordance with procedures prescribed by the Secretary of Defense.

The Office of Management and Budget advises that, from the standpoint of the Administration's program, there is no objection to the presentation of this report for the consideration of the Committee.

Sincerely,

Robert L. Nelson, Assistant Secretary of the Army (Manpower and Reserve Affairs).

pp. 20-21

In providing military recognition for the first time to these 223 women of the telephone operating units of the Army Signal Corps, my bill will have two effects. First, it will provide service credits which would be counted as service retirement credits. Second, it would make these women eligible for veterans' benefits which are available to all persons who served in active duty in World War I.

Those veterans' benefits include hospital and medical care, pension, and the right to be buried in a national cemetery. I am saddened to say that after 60 years, these women who served in the telephone operating units still have not received recognition by the Government for their sacrifices in World War I.

And I am even further saddened by the fact that before any official recognition is provided, only 60 of these 223 women who served our Nation in time of war will be alive to appreciate the satisfaction and benefits of any such recognition.

The most important factor to remember in considering the situation of the women who served in the telephone operating units is that they were, in fact, sworn into the military service. The hard fact is that an official of the military administered the military oath to these women, which had the real effect of making them active members of the military.

These Signal Corps women were sworn into the Armed Forces with the same oath as all other military enlistees. They enlisted for the duration of the war and served as members of the Army.

The women were subject to court-martial under the Code of Military Justice, and one woman was, in fact, court-martialed and sent back to the States for discharge.

I cite these facts to illustrate that the women of the telephone operating units were active members of the armed services and must be recognized as such and receive the same benefits.

Mr. Chairman, the women who served in the telephone operating units of the Army Signal Corps, rose to the occasion when they were needed in the First World War. It is time that this Nation provides these valiant women with the recognition that they justly deserve.

Many of these women were unable to travel to the hearing due to their age, although they are vitally interested in this bill. I, therefore, ask unanimous consent that copies of sworn affidavits from three of these women be included at the appropriate place in the record of the hearing.

Chairman Cranston. We will have that done, Senator Durkin.

Senator Durkin. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

[Affidavits of Merle Egan Anderson, Oleda Christides, and Louise LeBreton Maxwell may be found following statement of Mark M. Hough in appendix B.]

Senator Durkin. The affidavit of Merle Egan Anderson states quite clearly that she was sworn into military service in July 1918 by General Greenan, the Adjutant General of the Montana National Guard.

That affidavit further states that the Signal Corps women were told that they were the first women to be inducted into the American Army. Similarly, the affidavit of Oleda Christides indicates that she was sworn into the service with the identical oath taken by other Army personnel under the provisions of the Articles of War and Army regulations.

A telegram signed by the Secretary of War, Newton Baker, informed her that her status was the same as that of an Army nurse and therefore subject to Army regulations.

Finally, let me simply reemphasize my belief that all the women telephone operators in the Signal Corps enlisted and were sworn into the Army and that they did not sign any civilian contracts. In fact, the Army has never produced records of any such contracts. For this reason, they should receive the same military recognition as every other person who served the Nation in World War I.

Mr. Chairman, briefly, I would just like to add that these 223 women who served in the ranks of the telephone operators operated under the same oath, the same military regulations. They were enlisted and sworn as members of the military service.

No contracts were signed. They were required to wear Army uniforms with the official insignia of the Signal Corps, and one of the women was the first woman to win the Distinguished Service Medal. And she was recognized because of her service in the Signal Corps.

The Signal Corps women of World War I served as telephone operators in the American Expeditionary Forces in France from March 1918 to September 1919. They have never wavered in their belief that they were in the U.S. Army in 1918. They have continued to seek recognition.

The first bill to give them veterans' status was introduced in the 71st Congress in 1931. Dozens of bills have been introduced since then, only to die in Committee.

Today, nearly 60 years after the first group of Signal Corps women sailed for F rance; their service has still not been recognized. In fact, this is the first time that a congressional committee has ever held a hearing to examine the merits of their case.

Acknowledgment of their veterans' status is long overdue. We base this contention on the following facts:

One: Members of the Signal telephone units wore Army insignia and uniforms. These uniforms included regulation Army buttons and insignia of Signal Corps officers. The women wore the shoulder sleeve insignia of the organization they were serving as well as Army service stripes. These uniforms, insignia, and photographs of the women wearing them are preserved at the Army Signal Corps Museum at Fort Monmouth, N.J.

Two: The women were told by Army officers that they had grades correspondent to male officers and were paid on the same scale as male officers.

It might seem unusual for telephone operators to be officers since this is a job performed by enlisted personnel in the present-day Army. But in 1918, the telephone industry was in its infancy.

The job of telephone operator was far more responsible and complicated then than it is now since automated switching equipment has taken over much of the work formerly done by operators.

Also, at that time, there was a shortage of trained telephone operators. The high level of skill of these women is demonstrated by the fact that one of them, Merle Egan Anderson, trained 60 men to operate this equipment in 3 days.

In addition, many of these women were bilingual. General Pershing had specifically requested women who could speak French. Many of the women were recruited from college campuses. They were a highly motivated, well-educated, technically proficient group of women.

Three: Many of their orders read "same as Army nurses." The Army Nurse Corps was established as part of the Army in 1901, and all its members were considered to be an integral part of the U.S. Army.

Army nurses were given veterans' status for their World War I service. There are some additional parallels between the Signal Corps women and the Army nurses.

Army nurses had officer status, although it was at that time not exactly comparable to male officers. Nurses were accepted into the Army, even though they were female because women dominated the nursing profession to such an extent that male nurses were not available.

General Pershing had to request female telephone operators for the same reason—there were no males available in this field.

Four: This leads to the next point—that it was the intent of General Pershing that they be members of the Army. During the First World War, the British organized women into military units.

Pershing was impressed by their performance and requested units of American women to be enlisted. Laws then covering the Army restricted enlistment to "men," so Pershing did not get his female units.

But I believe that his intention was for the telephone operators to be a specialized corps of women enlisted because of their technical skill, somewhat comparable to the Army Nurse Corps. The way that the women were treated, housed, uniformed, and their orders all are evidence of this.

In his memoirs, Pershing mentioned the importance of the work the Signal Corps women did. He stated:

The perfection of our communication system in the AEF demanded the most modern terminal, station, and line equipment. One of the crying needs, when we began to use our own lines, was for experienced operators. Instead of trying to train men of the Signal Corps, I requested that a number of experienced telephone girls who could speak French be sent over, and eventually, we had 200 girls on this duty.

Some doubt existed among the members of my staff as to the wisdom of this step, but it soon vanished as the increased efficiency of our telephone system became apparent. No civil telephone service that ever came under my observation excelled the perfection of ours * * * the telephone girls in the AEF took great pains and pride in their work and did it with satisfaction to all.

Five: The Signal Corps women were under the direct orders of Signal Corps officers. They were considered by the American public, by the AEF, and by themselves to be members of the Army. A typical newspaper article about them appeared in the Boston Herald of July 1918 with the headline, "'Switchboard Soldiers' Are Picked for Their Ability." It stated:

The girls will wear the regulation uniform with insignia on the arm. They are in every respect a unit of soldiers coming under military orders at all times. Their pay is $72 a month with allowances for rations and quarters when not furnished in the Army.

Those surviving women who we have been able to locate are all consistent in their perception of their status and their memory of the uniforms, insignia, and the treatment which they received. For example, Louise Le Breton Maxwell states:

From the very beginning of our enlistment in San Francisco, we had repeatedly been told by Signal Corps officers, 'You're in the Army now.' This was brought home sharply one day when the Chief Signal Officer threatened me with a court-martial for a violation of censorship rules.

Ms. Underwood. OK, I can summarize. The women stood inspection with the male units. General Pershing also inspected their living quarters. I have served in the military, I have never known civilian employees to stand inspection with military units.

The Army has never produced civilian contracts. The Signal Corps women worked long hours, expected of soldiers in a war zone. They experienced bombings, and worked long, arduous hours, often lived in substandard living quarters.

And they were like soldiers serving our country at time of war. It was their experience which led to passage of the bill to create a Woman's Army Corps. Congresswoman Edith Nourse Rodgers, who sponsored that bill, said:

My motives? In the First World War, I was there, and I saw.

I saw the women In France and how they had no suitable quarters. Many * * * who served there are still sick, and I was never able to get any veterans compensation for them. I was resolved that our women would not again serve with the Army without the protection that men got.

Return to Top of Page

World War I
Hello Girls in the Great War
GG Archives

Telephone Operators in the Great War

 

 

 

Improve Your Family History Through Illustrations

Make Your Family History More Readable Through Illustrations From the GG Archives