This week’s America250 salute is Army Veteran Grace Banker, who led the female phone operators named Hello Girls during World War I.

This week’s America250 salute is Army Veteran Grace Banker.

After attending Barnard College in New York City, Grace Banker went to work for the American Telephone and Telegraph Company as a telephone operator. Her skill in communication led to her quick promotion as switchboard instructor. In December 1917, she found an ad from the U.S. Army Signal Corps seeking bilingual women switchboard operators, and she decided to apply.

Because of her experience, Army leaders chose Banker to head the team of operators, called “Hello Girls.” Following training, her team went to Chaumont, France, to Gen. John J. Pershing’s headquarters.

“Watched the Statue of Liberty fade from sight,” she wrote in her diary, according to an article from the National Museum of the United States Army. “For the first time, I suddenly realized what a responsibility I have on my young shoulders.”

Banker wasin Chaumont for five months before she transferred to the First Army headquarters at Ligny-en-Barrois to serve as chief operator. Banker and her team supported communications during the assault on St. Mihiel by sending, decoding and intercepting messages. She was proud of the work she and her team did.

“Resting up after the drive. Never spent more time at the office and never enjoyed anything more. My girls work like beavers,” she wrote in another diary entry on the World War I Centennial Commission site.

She also found that the codes were crucial because of the bilingual nature of the work and the daily changes in words.

“‘Ligny’ was ‘waterfall.’ ‘Toul’ might be ‘Podunk’ one day and ‘Wabash’ the next,” she wrote in an article on the National World War I Museum website. “Once in a mad rush of work I heard one of the girls say desperately, can’t I get ‘Uncle’ and another no I didn’t get ‘Jam.’ The girls had to speak both French and English and they also had to understand American Doughboy French.”

Banker and the Hello Girls also served at Bar-le-Duc, where they provided communications for the Meuse-Argonne offensive. At the height of the war, Hello Girls connected 150,000 calls a day. When news of the Armistice came, Banker had trouble believing it.

“I can’t realize that it will be so either. We have lived so long under war conditions that it doesn’t seem that it could come so simply. On Nov. 11th the Armistice was signed at eleven o’clock this morning, the eleventh day, the eleventh hour. All fighting was ordered to cease at that time. Our Corps lines were in bad condition and poor Capt. Beaumont of the telegraph office was having a terrible time. Suppose the message didn’t get through all right. It must get through if not by telegraphs, then by telephone.”

Following the end of the war, Banker transferred to Paris and worked at President Woodrow Wilson’s temporary French residence during the Treaty of Versailles talks. She found the work uninteresting compared to her wartime duties and later joined the occupying forces at Coblenz, Germany, where she stayed until 1920. It was at Coblentz that Banker received a Distinguished Service Award; she was one of only 18 Signal Corps members to receive it. However, despite the honor, Banker and the Hello Girls were ineligible for Veterans benefits.

In September 1920, Banker returned to the U.S. and discharged. She married Eugene Paddock and moved to Scarsdale, New York. Banker spoke openly and fondly of her time in the Signal Corps, remembering, “… [our work] made [me] a bigger person than [I] was before.”

Banker passed away in December 1960. In 1977, President Jimmy Carter signed legislation granting Veteran status to the female members of the Signal Corps.

“The Hello Girls are gone but their courage and competence formed part of the American resolve in World War I,” Executive Director of the World War I Centennial Commission Daniel S. Dayton wrote in a 2019 article on Texas A&M University’s department of history site. “The centennial is the best time to go back and recognize those who answered the call in the past but were not singled out for recognition they deserved.”

“Whatever glory may go with the medal I have always felt belongs in large measure to the very small, but very loyal and devoted group of First Army girls,” Banker wrote in a letter not long after the war.

We honor her service.


America 250

VA is highlighting 250 Veterans leading up to July 4, 2026, which marks 250 years of independence. Learn more about the count down to 250 years of the American spirit at https://america250.org/.


Contributors

Writer: Sarah Concepcion

Editors: Annabelle Colton, Julia Pack

Fact Checker: Giacomo Franco

Graphic Designer: Kiki Kelley

By VAntage Point Contributor

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Published on Mar. 3, 2022

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