Michigan woman in film that tells story of 'Hello Girls'
They were among America's first female soldiers of the Great War.
Yet the story of the "Hello Girls" — 223 women of the U.S. Army Signal Corps sent to France help win World War I — has remained relatively obscure.
The inspiring story of the group, whose members worked as telephone switchboard operators overseas and given the colloquial label from 1918 to 1920, is being told in a documentary playing in Marine City this weekend.
The 56-minute film "The Hello Girls" features the story of four of the Hello Girls, including Marine City resident Oleda Joure, who worked as a bilingual operator in Chaumont, France, at the headquarters of Gen. John J. Pershing, the commander of the American Expeditionary Force.
Joure, of French-Canadian descent, volunteered for the post at about the age of 19 and had never been away from home. She spoke French and played the piano, her daughter, Helen Richard, told The Detroit News.
"This was a way they could show love of country and their skills before they had the right to vote. They served in the war zones," Richard said from Clearwater, Florida, where she lives. "We stand on their shoulders. What they did was trailblazing. To my mother, she did her duty. It's not a great big thing. We now realize the contributions they made."
Filmmaker James Theres said the women ranged in age from 18 to 35 and were recruited after male infantrymen struggled to quickly connect calls.
The Hello Girls served at military headquarters and command outposts in the field alongside the American Expeditionary Forces in France.
Once in France, the women played a critical communications role for the Army, quickly connecting calls between military personnel at dozens of exchanges across France, often near the front lines.
The nature of the calls ranged from routine to critical, Theres said.
"When the battles happened, they were so efficient. When the battles came, they became logistical pieces of the battlefield. They had to keep secrets," Theres said.
The women, who wore Army uniforms and swore Army oaths, handled communications during the Meuse-Argonne Offensive, a major part of the final Allied offensive of World War I that stretched along the entire Western Front and lasted for 47 days.
They connected 26 million calls during their service.
Yet when they returned home in January 1920, they were denied veteran status and benefits.
The Army told them they were never soldiers, according to author Elizabeth Cobbs, who wrote "The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers," a book about the Hello Girls and was interviewed for the documentary.
That denial launched a 60-year crusade by the women. Some petitioned Congress and received attention in newspaper articles, but for 60 years, they were largely ignored.
Finally, with the help of the National Organization for Women, U.S. Sen. Barry Goldwater and a Seattle attorney, they won recognition in 1977.
A package of bills, recognizing the women as veterans, was signed by President Jimmy Carter on Nov. 23, 1977.
Joure, whose later married and changed her name to Christides, was one of 33 women still alive who received an honorable discharge from the military.
The single reason she wanted to be a veteran was to have a flag on her grave, Richard said. Christides died in 1984 and is buried in Marine City.
Richard said her mother's honorable discharge from the American Expeditionary Force was dated June 1919.
"When she got her discharge, they sent a general to Marine City to do it. She kissed the discharge papers and then said 'Where is my back pay?' She was kidding That was her wicked sense of humor," Richard said.
"My mother was a very loyal American. She said 'I would do it again. Even at my age.' She did love this country."
Theres, a veteran himself, said he was moved by the women's story and knew it must be told.
"I respect their service to the country for what they did and volunteered to do. But I admire the 60-year struggle. Who fights for 60 years? You have to realize you are 1,000 percent right to fight like they did, and so they did," Theres said.
"People don’t know what they did. They were nothing short of being the first unit of female soldiers that were combatants. How we let it be forgotten for 60 years is pretty amazing. And now we are here for the 100th anniversary."
The film will have a screening at 6:30 p.m. on Friday and 7 p.m. Saturday and a 4 p.m. Sunday matinee in Marine City at the Mariner Theater. The first two screenings are sold out.
The film is also scheduled to be screened on Nov. 11 in Chaumont, France, at Pershing's former headquarters.