The Hello Girls WW1 in America
The history of the "Hello Girls" begins in late 1917, when General Pershing's appeal for bilingual telephone-switchboard operators was published in newspapers throughout the United States. It was called an "Emergency Appeal" and specifically requested that women, who held the position of switchboard operators exclusively in the new Bell Telephone Company, be sworn into the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Pershing wanted women to be sworn into the Army as an emergency need, because, he stated, women have the patience and perseverence to do long, arduous detailed work. He had found that the men in the Signal Corps had difficulty operating the switchboards for these reasons and he also wanted them to be in the field, constantly stringing the wire necessary for communication from the trenches to the A.E.F. GHQ at Chaumont. It was the first time in the history of warfare that soldiers in the front-lines were connected to the General command.
Standing Inspection for General Pershing
These women were to be subject to all Army regulations, including Court-Martial, as well as another ten rules designed to assure their moral character. Married women were accepted, if not married to anyone serving overseas -- they were there to work. For this reason it was expected they be twenty-five years old.
There were, however, few among the 700 volunteers throughout Bell Telephone, who spoke French. In selecting the first 300, the age requirement and even the switchboard training was waived, for two sisters, Louise and Raymonde LeBreton, who had moved from France to the United States, when their widowed mother had married an American. They were 18 and 20. From Marine City, Michigan, a 19-year-old American of French-Canadian origin named Oleda Joure also volunteered. She had been trained by Bell Telephone to train women to operate switchboards, when she had become, at 16, what was at that time a rare High-School graduate.
Oleda at the time of the war
Oleda had played piano for dance-bands throughout the Thumb District of Michigan, for six years, since the age of thirteen, and she knew all the World War One popular music. While sailing "Over There" on the S.S. Olympic, which had been placed in quarantine at Southampton, England for two weeks because of the Spanish Influenza pandemic, she entertained the troops. When she was asked by the Red Cross official to accept a position touring camps and hospitals to entertain, she replied that she was in the Army under orders for the duration of the War.
She was assigned to General Pershing's American Expeditionary Force Headquarters in Chaumont, France. Her service extended a year after the Armistice in order to operate the telephones for the arrangements to return the troops home; there was no question but that she was there under orders for the duration. Oleda, and all the U.S. Army Signal Corps operators, stood inspection in the soldiers' ranks, for General Pershing's visiting dignitaries. She remembered President Wilson, Marechal Foch and the Prince of Wales. During one leave, which was given on pass exactly the same way as to any soldier, Oleda travelled to Bordeaux to meet her brother Wallace who was a member of the Army's Barber Shop quartet which travelled through France entertaining the troops.
Oleda visiting Wallace in Bordeaux, France Also shown are the hosting family, another member of the barber shop quartet and a French Soldier. [Oleda is seated in the front row next to her brother Wallace on the left of the photo. Louise Gordon, Signal Corps supervising operator, is standing in the rear.]
When she returned to civilian life, Oleda Joure continued her dual-career as a training supervisor for Bell Telephone in Michigan and professional piano-player with dance bands, until 1933, when she married Athanasius A. Christides. Her tie to France was renewed when Chris was sent to Paris, in the 1950s for 8 years as U. S. Treasury Representative to the new Common Market and Interpol. When the couple visited the cafes in St. Germain des Pres, French neighbors often requested that Oleda play the old WWI songs, that had united the Allies in spirit for the long, hard battles of 1918.
Returning to Michigan. Wallace is on this train stopped in Sturgis, Michigan enroute to Camp Custer. Oleda would follow the same path at the end of 1919.
However, when the Hello Girls had returned to the United States and applied for their honorable discharges, they were told they could not have been sworn into the Army, because U.S. Army regulations stated that "males" were sworn in, and said nothing about "persons," as the U.S. Navy regulations had. "Yeomanettes" who served in the United States during WWI, were therefore considered veterans, but not the U.S. Army Signal Corps women, who had served Over There.
From 1930 to 1978, the "Hello Girls," led by Merle Egan-Anderson of Helena, Montana, introduced bills into Congress, which had actually given Citations for Bravery to ten of the women who had operated the switchboards behind the front-lines during the battle of St. Mihiel. The building they were in had caught fire from the bombardment and they had been ordered to leave the switchboards. They believed the order for their safety to have been in consideration of their sex and so continued to operate until the fire was so threatening that GHQ also threatened Court Martial if they did not leave their posts. They were back in an hour after the fire was put out.
Merle Egan Anderson, sitting at the Supervisor's desk at the Paris Peace Conference in the Hotel Crillon. She led the fight from 1930 - 1978 for recognition of the Hello Girls' veteran-status.
When Seattle lawyer, Mark Hough, volunteered his services to Merle Anderson, in 1976, and Oleda's daughter, Michelle Christides, then Assistant Professor of Western Civilization at California State University, Sonoma, Hutchins School of Liberal Studies, researched the historical information on the Hello Girls' contribution to victory, they received help from several Congresspeople, who introduced the bill that gave them recognition of their status, on the 60th anniversary of the Armistice, as the first women veterans of the U. S. Army.
Oledareceiving a certificate of recognition from Brig. General Arthur Wolfe as Chris looks on proudly.
For the seventy women still alive, there was nation-wide coverage in the newspapers, but their story has still not been told in the history books. Each remaining "Hello Girl" was visited by a General of the U. S. Army and handed her Honorable Discharge in a ceremony at her home.