Editor’s note: On May 22, 1919, U.S. Army Lieutenant General Hunter Liggett presented the Distinguished Service Medal to Grace D. Banker of Passaic, N.J., at U.S. Army Headquarters in Coblenz, Germany, during World War I. Her citation read, in part, “By exceedingly meritorious and distinguished service, and by untiring devotion to her exacting duties under trying conditions, did much to assure the success of the ‘phone system during the operations against the St. Mihiel salient and north of Verdun.” The U.S. Army Signal Corps was among the first to embrace roles for women within the military. The Signal Corps, and Fort Monmouth, would set a glowing example of the benefits of a diversified workforce for decades to come. The following essay has been authored by Monmouth University Specialist Professor Melissa Ziobro, a former historian for Fort Monmouth.
By Melissa Ziobro
Monmouth County history enthusiasts may know that Fort Monmouth began as a U.S. Army Signal Corps training camp during World War I, initially dubbed “Camp Little Silver.” Some may even know that it eventually became known as the “Home of the Signal Corps,” a title it held for many years. Fewer know that the Signal Corps’ utilization of women in WWI marked a significant advancement towards the gender integration of the Army – or that the use of those women helped pave the way for the first official female Soldiers in our country’s history.
Prior to the World Wars, the Army occasionally used women in what it considered gender-appropriate roles. For example, civilian women, often known as camp followers, cooked and mended for Soldiers during the Revolutionary and Civil Wars much as they had done for their men in times of peace. A few women acted as nurses during the American Revolution and continued to do so after the country gained its independence, despite popular concerns about the close contact with males this work required.
Early twentieth century advances in military communications-electronics technology, combined with manpower shortages, provided the Army with opportunities to employ women in less traditionally feminine roles. The Signal Corps consequently used women as telephone operators during WWI. The Corps initially recruited bilingual women from commercial telephone companies, but later accepted less experienced applicants to fill the growing demand.
According to historian Rebecca Robbins Raines in Getting the Message Through: A Branch History of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, the first unit of female telephone operators to serve with the American Expeditionary Forces arrived in Paris in March 1918. Approximately two hundred female telephone operators ultimately served in operating units in the First, Second, and Third Army Headquarters. The women worked in Paris and dozens of other locations throughout France and England. Nicknamed the “Hello Girls,” these women worked long hours, often under combat conditions.
In one instance, the Army reportedly forcefully evacuated the Female Telephone Operators Unit of the First Army Headquarters because the women refused to desert their posts even after their building caught fire. The women, after re-admittance to the building, restored operations within an hour. They subsequently won a commendation from the Chief Signal Officer of the First Army. Grace D. Banker, of Passaic, N.J., chief operator, even received a Distinguished Service Medal for her wartime service. Not to be confused with the Distinguished Service Cross, one of our nation’s highest awards for valor in wartime, the Distinguished Service Medal is awarded to members of the military who have performed their duties, of any kind, above and beyond expectations.
WWI Chief Signal Officer Major General George Owen Squier later cited women’s “unquestioned superiority” as switchboard operators and their value in freeing men for the fighting front. The Report of the Chief Signal Officer, 1919, declared that, “The use of women operators throughout the entire war was decidedly a success…”
That success notwithstanding, the Signal Corps released its “Hello Girls” soon after the armistice. Unfortunately, according to the U.S. Army Signal Corps Museum, the female operators returned home only to realize that “all Army regulations were worded in the ‘male’ gender, so the women were denied veterans status. They were considered civilians working for the Army. This perplexed the women because they were required to wear regulation uniforms, they were sworn into service and had to follow all Army regulations.” Only decades later, in 1978, did legislation award the operators veteran’s status. Despite the regrettable lag in official recognition, proponents of the gender integration of the Army during World War II often cited the Signal Corps’ successful employment of the “Hello Girls.”
Manpower shortages during that conflict again necessitated the use of women. Historian Russell Weigley explains in Eisenhower’s Lieutenants that by mid-1943 the Army was approaching “the limit of the numbers it could remove from the economy without endangering a basic conception of the Allied war effort, that America was to be the industrial arsenal for all the Allied powers.” According to Max L. Marshall’s The Story of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, the Corps, in particular, required an enormous increase in personnel to cope with “the new equipment developments and the mass production of wire and cable, radio radar, and all the increasingly complex components of modern communications-electronics.”
The utilization of women offered what historian Karen Kovach has called a “golden opportunity” to solve these labor shortages. So recognizable was the opportunity that Chief of Staff General George Marshall himself told the War Department in November 1941, “I want a women’s corps right away, and I don’t want any excuses!” The 77th Congress eventually did establish the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps (WAAC) with Public Law 554 on May 14, 1942, which allowed women to serve “with,” not “in,” the Army. The law passed after much heated debate amongst chauvinistic Congressmen over whether or not “women generals would rush about the country dictating orders to male personnel and telling the commanding officers of posts how to run their business,” and “who then will do the cooking, the washing, the mending — the humble home tasks to which every woman has devoted herself?”
The Army thus became the first of the services to enlist women during WWII. Key members of the Signal Corps advocated the use of women early in the conflict. This contrasted with much of the legislature, many military personnel, and a high percentage of the general public, all of whom considered a woman’s place to be in the home. The Signal Corps, by 1942, had identified 2,000 jobs suitable for WAACs. Hundreds of auxiliaries soon descended on Fort Monmouth and other Signal Corps posts.
The Commanding Officer of the 15th Signal Training Regiment at Fort Monmouth, Colonel Frank H. Curtis, claimed of these women, “their pedagogical training has given them a well diversified background…They grasp their work rapidly, and have a keen sense of loyalty. We’re glad to have them working with us.” This type of praise provided a marked contrast to the ongoing, public “slander campaign” against WAAC morality, which became so widespread that First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt, Secretary of War Henry L. Stimson, and General Marshall all publicly denounced it.
Despite such obstacles, the WAAC gave way to the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) in 1943. This made women a part of the Army as opposed to an auxiliary thereof. Signal Corps Colonel Harry O. Compton outspokenly supported this decision, declaring, “They (women) are particularly adept at work of a highly repetitive nature, requiring light, manual dexterity…Where men grow tired and bored, women’s efficiency remains unimpaired.” Even WAC Director Oveta Culp Hobby recognized women’s usefulness to the Signal Corps, stating, “From the inauguration of the WAC, the potential usefulness of members in carrying out Signal Corps duties was recognized.” The Signal Corps would be the first agency of the Army Service Forces to request Women’s Army Corps personnel and utilized a higher percentage of female replacement communicators than any other technical service, except the Chemical Warfare Service. Signal Corps WACs in Europe represented 23.5 percent of all the WAC personnel in the Communications Zone, exclusive of the United Kingdom. This meant approximately one Signal Corps WAC for every 55 Signal Corps men. The other services could claim only one WAC to every 234 men.
More than 150,000 women would serve with the Women’s Army Corps during WWII. Around 5,000 served with the Signal Corps. A Signal Corps board convened at Fort Monmouth post-war, in 1948, eventually contributed to the Army’s decision to retain women in peacetime. The Board deemed women “more adaptable and dexterous than men in the performance of certain specialties.” All of the military services eventually lobbied Congress for the continued participation of women in the Armed Forces. The Women’s Armed Services Integration Act of 1948, Public Law 625, passed by the 80th Congress, consequently gave women a permanent place in the military services.
It was not until 1978, however, that the Army abolished the WAC and fully integrated women into the Regular Army. The Signal Corps, with its “home” at Fort Monmouth, had championed women for the past sixty years. Its use of civilian female telephone operators during WWI represented one of the ways the Army first cautiously used women in what it considered gender acceptable roles, outside of nurses and camp followers. Breaking down the barriers that impeded camp followers and even Army nurses, these pioneering women answered the call that would integrate by gender what historians have called the “most prototypically masculine of all social institutions,” the United States Army.
About the Author
Melissa Ziobro, M.A., is the Specialist Professor of Public History at Monmouth University in West Long Branch, N.J., and the primary point of contact for the public history minor. Her service to the University includes administration of the Monmouth Memories Oral History Program and the Department’s social media and newsletter. She serves as the campus coordinator for the National History Day program, and the faculty advisor for the History and Anthropology Club.
Melissa currently serves as the President of Oral History in the Mid-Atlantic Region and as the editor for New Jersey Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, a joint venture of the N.J. Historical Commission, Rutgers University Libraries, and Monmouth University. She is currently a trustee of the N.J. Vietnam Veterans Memorial Foundation, InfoAge Science and History Learning Center, and Ocean County Historical Society. She serves on the Board of Directors of Preservation N.J., and works regularly with other public history organizations such as the Monmouth County Park System, Monmouth County Historical Association, Monmouth County Historical Commission, Monmouth County Archives, Asbury Park Historical Society, Asbury Park Museum, Middlesex County Office of Culture and Heritage, National Guard Militia Museum of N.J., Princeton Preservation Group, and more.
She worked as a command historian at the U.S. Army Communications-Electronics Command, Fort Monmouth, N.J., from 2004-2011.
Cobbs, Elizabeth. The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers. Harvard University Press, 2017.
Raines, Rebecca Robbins. (2015). Getting the Message Through: A Branch History of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, Amazon.com, Scotts Valley, Calif., January 10, 2015.
Weigley, Russell F. (1981). Eisenhower’s Lieutenants: The Campaigns of France and Germany, 1944-45. Indiana University Press, Bloomington, Ind., June 22, 1981.
Marshall, Max L. (1965). The Story of the U.S. Army Signal Corps. Franklin Watts Inc., New York, N.Y., January 1, 1965.
Kovach, Karen. (2001). Breaking Codes, Breaking Barriers: The WACs of the Signal Security Agency, World War II. History Office, Office of the Chief of Staff, US Army Intelligence and Security Command, January 1, 2001.
Phillips, Helen C. (1967). History of the U.S. Army Signal Center and School: 1919-1967, Fort Monmouth, N.J., U.S. Army Signal Center and School, 1967.
Ziobro, Melissa. “African American Women in the Public Square: Admiral Michelle Howard,” in Hettie Williams’ Bury My Heart in a Free Land: Black Women Intellectuals in Modern U.S. History. ABC-Clio Incorporated, December 2017.
Ziobro, Melissa. “Skirted Soldiers: The Women’s Army Corps and Gender Integration of the U.S. Army during WWII,” in On Point: The Journal of Army History, Spring 2012 Vol. 17 No. 4.
Ziobro, Melissa. “Gender Integration of the Army advanced at Fort Monmouth.” MA Thesis, Monmouth University, 2007.