"The Hello Girls of World War I deserve to be recognized for their place in history."
By Claudia Friddell
Special to the Doughboy Foundation web site
As the author of narrative nonfiction books for children, I am most interested in finding and sharing little-known or long-forgotten stories of Americans who have made significant contributions to our country. When I read Elizabeth Cobbs’ inspiring book, The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers, I knew I wanted to share with young readers the remarkable story of the courageous female telephone operators who helped win World War l.
Thanks to Elizabeth’s impeccable research and her talent as a riveting storyteller, a generation of readers have been introduced to these pioneering women of the Signal Corps who not only blazed the trail for women in the U.S. Army but fought a sixty-year battle to earn their veteran status. Now, even more people have come to know these amazing women from Jim Theres’ excellent documentary and a wonderful off-Broadway musical—both entitled The Hello Girls. Hoping to inspire young readers with their heroic story, I partnered with New York Times best-selling illustrator, Elizabeth Baddeley, to create the picture book, Grace Banker and Her Hello Girls Answer the Call.
One of the great pleasures of researching historical subjects is meeting their descendants. When I decided to tell the story of the WWl Signal Corps female operators through the eyes of Grace Banker, the chief operator of the first unit of women soldiers, I had no idea how enriched my story and I would become after meeting Grace’s granddaughter, Carolyn Timbie. She is passionate about preserving and sharing her grandmother’s inspiring story of leadership, patriotism, perseverance, and bravery. Carolyn graciously shared a treasure trove of her grandmother’s photos, keepsakes, and documents from the war.
I knew I had struck gold when I read Grace’s diary from her WWl service as the chief operator at General Pershing’s battlefield headquarters. Grace was a wonderful writer, so it was a treat to weave in some of her diary entries into my text so she could help tell her own story.
Getting to know Carolyn has helped me feel more connected to her grandmother. I hope Carolyn’s insights in this interview will bring you one step closer to Grace Banker, the Signal Corps operators, and their World War l experiences.
1) Since your grandmother Grace died before you had the chance to know her, can you describe how you learned about her contributions in World War l and her historical significance?
At an early age I learned from my mother (Grace Banker Paddock’s daughter) that my grandmother was an important person. She was the first Chief Operator to lead a group of women telephone operators to France under the command of General Pershing. She was the only woman in the Signal Corp in WWl to be honored with a Distinguished Service Medal. At such a young age, I had no idea what any of this meant! In 1974, Yankee Magazine published “I was a Hello Girl”. The article, written years earlier by my grandmother, was submitted by Hello Girl Merl Egan to Yankee Magazine. My mother bought multiple copies to give to me and my brothers. I was indeed proud to know of my grandmother’s accomplishments and to see it in print.
It wasn’t until my grandfather passed in 1976, that along with other items belonging to my grandmother, a large trunk was moved into our house with my grandmother’s name and a brass plate engraved “Signal Corps US Army”. For the first time, I saw its contents that included her trench helmet, gas mask, mess kit, and YWCA poster with an image of a woman telephone operator and many souvenirs taken from the WWl battlefields. Also, for the first time, I saw her uniform— I was in awe! I recall my childhood thoughts…” if my grandmother was so important, why didn’t others know the story of her and the other Hello Girls?” Decades later in 2016, Elizabeth Cobbs reached out to my parents to gather information for her book “The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers”. It wasn’t until I read her book that I fully understood the story. All those years, I was not aware that the Hello Girls had not been officially recognized for their service until 1977!
2) What has this journey into your grandmother's past been like for you?
The journey into my grandmother’s story has been a life changing event! It has been a time of discovery and a time of connecting to my past. I’ve spent the last couple of years sifting through my grandmother’s letters, photos, newspaper clippings, and scrapbooks. I’ve not only learned about her war service, but also her personal side as a loving daughter, wife, mother, and friend. The journey has also been a time of making new connections. In 2018, I had the pleasure of being a part of the Hello Girls documentary directed by Jim Theres. From there, I met authors, members of the military / Signal Corp. I met other descendants of the Hello Girls who had mothers, grandmothers, and great aunts that served alongside my grandmother. On the 100th anniversary of the Armistice, I was honored and thrilled to attend a weekend of commemoration events in the town of Chaumont, France (the town where my grandmother first served in WWl). I am so proud of my grandmother’s story. However, it has also been an emotional journey for me. In the past couple of years as I’ve been reviewing my grandmother’s papers, I saw notes my mother jotted down from years before about her mother’s service. My mother, sadly in the late stages of dementia, couldn’t fully understand the recent attention given to my grandmother and the Hello Girls’ story. Still, mom would smile lovingly as I talked to her about all the latest events about her mother.
3) What would you like others to know about your grandmother?
My grandmother was a strong, independent, adventurous woman who embraced all that life had to offer. Upon reviewing her letters home from France and letters to my mother, I realize what strong family values she had. Although I never met her, many of her values and interests were instilled in her children and grandchildren: a great love for family, the outdoors, traveling, and a love of cats! She was also a woman of strong faith and a member of the Episcopal Church. Relating to her war days, Grace had a brother Eugene who also served in WWl in the Field Artillery. She had a son, also named Eugene, that served in WWll. My grandmother was proud to serve her country and “do her bit”. However, she was not one to share her war experience and rarely talked about them with her family.
As the Chief Operator of the first unit of Signal Corps women that sailed to France and the rare recipient of the Distinguished Service Medal, she attracted a great deal of media attention. Newspapers from all over the country wanted photos of her and interviews. My grandmother was not one who enjoyed being the center of attention. After the war, she wanted to get back to work and enjoy time with her family and friends.
4) As the granddaughter of the chief operator of the first unit of women to serve in the U.S. Army, can you talk about the Congressional Gold Medal and its significance for you and other family members?
The Hello Girls is an important piece of women’s history that was cast aside when the US Army reneged on its commitment to these women (of the Signal Corps) by refusing to acknowledge their status as the first women soldiers. The women served bravely and made a huge impact on the success of WWl, only to be overlooked upon their return to the states. Many of them spent most of their adult lives, a total of sixty years, fighting for recognition and their Veteran status, only to be dismissed. Most of the women never lived to see the day when they were finally recognized. My grandmother was one of those women. This is a huge travesty! Not only for the women, but also for the people of this country and for the descendants who never knew the full story of their brave mothers and grandmothers. The Congressional Gold Medal is a tremendous honor, and the Hello Girls of WWl deserve to be recognized for their place in history!
5) I have found that many readers of my book, Grace Banker and Her Hello Girls Answer the Call, are captivated by Grace and the Signal Corps operators' heroic contributions in winning WWl. Why do you think this young generation finds their story so relatable?
The Hello Girls story is particularly fascinating to kids and young adults for many reasons. When we hear about WWl we usually think of the men, never realizing there were also women who had important roles and faithfully served their country. And this was a time when women didn’t yet have the right to vote! The Hello Girls served from all over the country and from diverse backgrounds which I think children and young adults admire. Some grew up on farms or in cities, some came from other countries such as Canada or France, some went to college, and others did not. Although diverse in background, these women united for a common cause.
To think that a group of women one hundred years ago volunteered to serve overseas in the U.S. Army in WWl is just an amazing feat. At a time when most young women had few choices and followed traditional paths as wives and mothers raising children at home, this group of mostly single women set out for the great unknown—battlefields across the ocean.
The women are intelligent and not only are they able to do their job, but they excel at it and are far superior to the men in the same role. They are admired and respected by their male officers for their dedication, their teamwork, and their leadership skills.
The Hello Girls serve as role models for children today for their bravery, for taking risks, and for asserting themselves in a man’s world. They were “underdogs” and proved that if you put your mind to it, you can have an impact in the world and leave a mark in history. And we see that they are human and vulnerable just like anybody else. My grandmother remarked that she realized what a great responsibility she had on her young shoulders as she was sailing out of New York City Harbor. She expressed her vulnerable side, yet she put on a brave face as she was committed to the larger cause of fighting for her country.
Lastly, the Hello Girls fought for sixty years against a system that refused to recognize their service. They were turned away year after year, and still they came back fighting for their recognition as army veterans. They showed perseverance and refused to give up. It is important for children and young adults to know that this doesn’t always come easily, but there is reward in the fight for a common cause.
After our interview, Carolyn had a couple of questions for me to answer. In response to her question—How did you first hear about Grace Banker and the Hello Girls and what inspired you to write a story about them? — I touched on my initial fascination with this little- known story after reading Elizabeth Cobb’s book. While I knew I wanted to share this story with young readers, I became convinced that Grace would make the perfect subject after diving into her WWl treasures and reading her diary.
Regarding Carolyn’s question—Why do you think that the children/young adults relate to this story? — I can’t answer this question any better than Carolyn already has! All I can add is that there are certain events in history that are more challenging to share in a kid-friendly way—World War l is one of those historic events. It is a complicated war, even for adults to understand. Elizabeth Baddeley’s fabulous illustrations certainly bring life to these World War l heroes, making them relatable for readers of all ages.
Grace’s diary entries help readers see the timelessness of emotions. She shares her innermost thoughts as a young woman heading into a new and daunting adventure on distant battlefields. She shows her good humor in trying times, her compassion for her colleagues and soldiers, and her dedication to her work and her country. Grace reveals herself as very much like young women today!
As a former elementary teacher, I find that shining a light on unsung heroes is often a way into difficult subject matter for young readers. There is no doubt that Grace and the Signal Corps telephone operators in WWl lived real-life adventures exhibiting the timeless themes of leadership, dedication, courage under pressure, selflessness for an important cause, and perseverance in a fight for fairness. Knowing that these heroic women excelled in a man’s world and were then repeatedly denied their due recognition makes their story particularly relevant today.
Recognizing the heroics of brave Americans in the past like Grace Banker and the Signal Corps Hello Girls will not only honor their historic contributions but can also serve as inspiration for all Americans today and in the future. Presenting the descendants of the first women to serve in the military the Congressional Gold Medal would certainly do both.
For children’s author, Claudia Friddell, the next best thing to time travel is discovering and sharing exciting real life stories from long ago. A former elementary school teacher, Claudia loves talking to students and teachers about the magic of bringing history to life through books. When she’s not visiting schools, digging for treasure in the library, or writing at her home in Baltimore, she’s reading, walking, and kayaking on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Find out more on her web site at https://www.claudiafriddell.com/.