The story of the World War I Hello Girls will not be found in history books. It is not because they were not useful, or not dedicated. In fact, they were quite the opposite. The Hello Girls in WWI actually made a significant contribution to the war.
Their story began in the latter part of 1917. At that time, General Pershing was seeking telephone-switchboard operators who were bilingual. His appeal was published in newspapers across the US entitled ‘Emergency Appeal’. He asked that any women switchboard operators with Bell Telephone be sworn in to the US Army Signal Corps. Pershing felt women had more patience and perseverance when it came to doing long, grueling detailed work. Pershing also discovered that it was difficult for the men to operate switchboard equipment. He felt they were better suited in the field laying wire for the much needed communication between the trenches to the A.E.F. General Headquarters in the Chaumont. This connection between the two was the first in warfare history.
Once the women were sworn in, they were subject to the same regulations as the men, which included being Court Martial, and the ten basic rules which were intended to assure moral character. In general, those selected could be married – as long as it was not to someone overseas – and it was expected they be at least 25 years old.
Among the first 700 volunteers, a few spoke French. Therefore, when the first 300 were chosen, the age requirement and switchboard training requirement was waived. This waiver included two sisters, Louise (age 18) and Ramonde LeBreton (age 20). They had moved to the United States (from France) when their mother (who was widowed) married an American.
The Story of Oleda Joure
Another young lady accepted was 19 year old Oleda Joure. Oleda was an American of French-Canadian origin. When she was only 16, she was trained by Bell Telephone to instruct other women to work the switchboards.
Oleda was also a pianist. She would play for dance bands and became very familiar with the popular songs of World War I. She once entertained the troops in Southampton, England when she was quarantined for two weeks as a result of the Spanish Influenza pandemic. An official with the Red Cross asked her to tour camps and hospitals and entertain the troops. She was unable to accept this position as she was ‘under orders’ for the duration of the war.
Oleda was assigned to Pershing’s American Expeditionary Force Headquarters in Chaumont, France. She continued to serve for an additional year (after the signing of the Armistice) to assist with operating the telephones so arrangements could be made for the troops to return home.
Once Oleda was finally able to return to civilian life, she picked up right where she left off – as a training supervisor and as a pianist with dance bands. In 1933, she married Athanasius Christides. In the 1950s, he was sent to Paris as US Treasury Representative to the new Common Market and Interpol for duration of eight years. Oleda’s ties with France were not only renewed during this time. When she and Chris visited cafes in St. Germain des Pres, the people would often request she play the World War I songs that had lifted and united the spirits of the Allie troops so long ago.
The Hello Girls Return Home
When the Hello Girls returned to the US, they applied for their honorable discharges. However, they were informed their requests could not be granted since US Army regulations stated that only “males” could be sworn in. They were, therefore, not considered veterans.
Beginning in 1930, Merle Egan-Anderson from Helena, MT led the ‘Hello Girls’ and together, they introduced various bills in Congress. Up to that point, Congress had only awarded ten Citations for Bravery to ten women who were switchboard operators behind the front lines during the battle of St. Mihiel. Their building had caught fire and the operators were ordered to evacuate. The ‘Hello Girls’ felt the order was given because they were females so they chose to continue to stay and continue to operate the switchboards despite the fire. Finally, the fire became so intense that GHQ threated the women with Court Martial if they did not abandon their posts. An hour after the fire was extinguished, they returned to their switchboards.
In 1976, a lawyer by the name of Mark Hough, offered his services (at no cost) to Anderson. Anderson’s daughter began researching the historical information available on the ‘Hello Girls’ and their contribution to the victory. This brought about the much needed support from a number of Congresspeople and the bill was introduced and they finally received their recognition on the 60th anniversary of the Armistice officially making the Hello Girls of World War I the first women veterans of the US Army.