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
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
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.
Oleda receiving 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.
About the Contributor:
Michelle Christides, the daughter of Oleda and Chris (Athanasius
Christides) has contributed the material shown here, selected from the
book on the definitive history of the Signal Corps women's contribution to victory in WWI. It contains the oral history of Merle Egan Anderson, Louise LeBreton Maxwell and Oleda Joure Christides. Michelle is currently searching for a publisher.
Michelle Christides invites you to visit her web site by clicking here:
Globalization and Environmental Enterprise, Creative Work and Brain Fitness
She specializes in the historical paradigm-shift we have been undergoing since World War One and asks descendants of the 332 US Signal Corps women to email her at: "Answering the Call" if you have any letters, journals, or family history for an upcoming book and documentary by that name.