Skip to main content

They’re In The Army Now

July 2024
1min read

For nearly sixty years, Mrs. Merle Anderson of Seattle, Washington, tried to convince the federal government that she did, too, serve a hitch with the United States Army during World War I. In the late spring of 1918, Mrs. Anderson, together with some three hundred other French-speaking American women, responded to General John J. Pershing’s call for more telephone operators to serve in France by enlisting in the Army’s Signal Corps. The “Hello Girls,” as they came to be nicknamed, proved themselves vital to Allied communications; Mrs. Anderson herself later became chief operator for the American delegation to the Paris Peace Conference in 1919. After that, she and the rest, with warm thanks, were discharged.

But not honorably and not officially, they learned, and not with the veteran’s benefits to which they believed their service entitled them. The Army, it seemed, decided to classify the Signal Corps women as citizen volunteers; as such, it declared, they were not eligible for honorable discharges, veteran’s benefits, or even the coveted Victory Medal that went to all male veterans of the war.

Over the next few decades Mrs. Anderson led the fight for recognition. If the women had not been genuine members of the Army, she wanted to know, then why was it that they were sworn in like all other enlistees, that official Army buttons were sewn on their uniforms, that they were required to wear the official Signal Corps emblem, and that they were subject at all times to the Army’s Code of Military Justice, no more free to “resign” and go home than any doughboy.

The government remained unembarrassed and unconvinced in the face of Mrs. Anderson’s letters, petitions, interviews, and articles—until November of 1977, when Congress finally passed legislation which required the Secretary of Defense to hold administrative hearings on the claims of the Signal Corps women and such other groups as the Women’s Army Service Pilots (WASPs) of World War II. In November of 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed a bill granting the women veteran’s status, and in May of 1979, the Veterans Administration set forth the benefits that will be available. They will not be an overwhelming burden on the taxpayers: at this writing there are only seventeen surviving “Hello Girls.”

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.