Gamma Phi Beta Grace Banker joined Gamma Phi Beta at Barnard Colllege. Due to anti-fraternity sentiment, the chapter was short-lived. Banker was one of the women who served her country in World War I. Her service was in a unique capacity, which was high tech at the time, but it seems so quaint to us now.
A call went out for experienced switchboard operators who could speak both French and English. More than 7,000 women applied; 450 were chosen to be “Hello Girls” as they were informally known. Banker was the Chief Operator of the of the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit.
The women completed Signal Corps training at Fort Franklin in Maryland. In March 1918, she and 32 other women, the first group of operators, headed to Europe. They began operating phones in France and Britain.
Banker and five others were dispatched to the First American Army Headquarters. They were part of the September 1918 Battle of St. Mihiel. Together they worked night and day for eight days. At the end of the month, their new assignment took them to the front lines, northwest of Verdun. From that post, they were subjected to the same threats as the infantry, aerial bombardment from German planes. Their barracks were leaky and cold and in October it burned after being hit by the Germans. Once they were also threatened with court-martial if they did not leave their posts immediately. They left, but returned an hour later to make use of the few telephone lines that survived the bombardment.
Banker continued to work after the armistice was signed. She went to Paris and was dispatched to President Woodrow Wilson’s temporary residence. When an opportunity to be assigned to the Army of Occupation at Coblenz, Germany, was offered, she quickly accepted it. Lieutenant-General Hunter Liggett presented her with the Distinguished Service Medal for her work during the St. Mihiel drive. She left Europe in September 1919 after more than a year and a half of service.
Banker and her colleagues wore U.S. Army uniforms and were subjected to all Army regulations. However, they did not receive honorable discharges; Army regulations specified male gender, therefore the women were considered civilians. In 1978, on the 60th anniversary of World War I’s end, Congress gave the living “Hello Girls” veteran status via honorable discharges. Sadly, Grace Banker Paddock died in 1960 and could not revel in this honor.
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