100 Years On, The 'Hello Girls' Are Recognized For World War I Heroics More than 200 American women played a crucial role in the war as telephone operators. But when the shooting stopped, they weren't considered veterans and their story was largely forgotten. Until now.

100 Years On, The 'Hello Girls' Are Recognized For World War I Heroics

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

This Sunday marks a hundred years since the end of World War I. It is a war that marked many firsts. Among them, it was the first time American women served in uniform as part of the war effort. They were called the Hello Girls. NPR's Greg Myre reports on their forgotten story, a story that's making a comeback.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: One, two, three.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #1: (Singing) We've been pressed and assessed, and we've passed every test, but we aren't in the Army yet.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: In a rehearsal space near New York's Times Square, the cast is preparing for next week's opening of a musical, "The Hello Girls," which has been a century in the making.

CARA REICHEL: Very few people have heard this story.

MYRE: Director Cara Reichel hadn't heard of the Hello Girls either until a few years ago. Here's how she describes them.

REICHEL: America's first women soldiers, the first women to serve actively in the military, in the Army who were bilingual - French-English translators who served on the front lines in World War I.

MYRE: So how did these women make it to the muddy and bloody fields of France for the war's most important battles? The short answer is male incompetence. The top U.S. commander, General John Black Jack Pershing, needed skilled phone operators who could travel with him and maintain contact with troops scattered over hundreds of miles.

ELIZABETH COBBS: He rapidly discovered that these doughboys, as they were called, were not very quick.

MYRE: Historian Elizabeth Cobbs is the author of the book "The Hello Girls" which came out last year.

COBBS: The men were all a little resistant to, you know, doing this girls' kind of job.

MYRE: So Pershing appealed for women against objections from his own army.

COBBS: The Army hated the idea of using women, just hated it.

MYRE: But young women loved it. Thousands responded to newspaper ads, and eventually 223 served. Communications improved dramatically.

COBBS: It took a man 60 seconds on average to make a connection. It took a woman 10 seconds.

MYRE: Their leader was Grace Banker, just a couple years out of Barnard College and an operator at AT&T when she volunteered. Banker's granddaughter is Carolyn Timbie.

CAROLYN TIMBIE: I'm just in awe of my grandmother and really what courage and leadership she had and working with these women.

MYRE: But even she didn't know the full story until recently. And we'll get to that in a moment. General Pershing did recognize their importance. Photos show him pinning medals on the women after the war. Grace Banker was among a select few, male or female, to win the Distinguished Service Medal. When the women returned to their hometowns, many were recognized for their extraordinary service. But author Elizabeth Cobbs explains what happened when they applied for veteran status and benefits.

COBBS: The Army decided they were contract workers and said to them, well, you were very well-paid, miss. You know, you don't need to worry about this.

MYRE: The women pressed one president after another.

COBBS: They wrote Franklin Delano Roosevelt and Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy (laughter), Nixon, et cetera all the way up to Carter.

MYRE: In 1977, six decades after the war and after most of the Hello Girls had died, they were finally recognized as Army veterans. This vindication seemed to be the end of the story. But a couple years ago, Cobb started on her book and tracked down Carolyn Timbie, the granddaughter of Hello Girl Grace Banker. Timbie had a trunk in New Hampshire with her grandmother's stuff but had never really given it a close look.

TIMBIE: Because it just was this treasure trove of all these things my grandmother had kept from a hundred years ago.

MYRE: Such as...

TIMBIE: The uniform, the helmet, the gas mask. We have a lot of things she collected from the battlefields - cigarette lighters, shell casings, some bullets.

MYRE: And a diary. So the Hello Girls are making a comeback - first the book, then came a documentary. Two U.S. senators are proposing a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal. And the cast is fine-tuning the musical, which opens off Broadway next Tuesday.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #2: (Singing) But are we in the Army?

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #3: (Singing) Are we in the Army?

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #2: (Singing) Are we in the Army?

MYRE: Sounds like they're ready.

UNIDENTIFIED SINGERS #2: (Singing) You bet.

MYRE: Greg Myre, NPR News, New York.

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