In 1917, a young woman from Emmett learned about a special group of “Hello Girls” she was about to join.
It was a hot August night when Anne Marie Campbell was working a call between two men on a crackly connection. The parties could not clearly hear each other, so she repeated the conversations back to each man so they could take care of business.
Minutes after that call ended, according to a 1984 Idaho Statesman interview with the woman who was now Anne Campbell Atkinson, she got a personal call on the switchboard. It was one of the men she’d just been helping. He said, “Madam, if you are the lady who just assisted with the call to New York, I’d like to hire you for the U.S. Army. I’m a recruiter for General Pershing and your voice is so crisp and clear—would you be willing to go to France as an operator for the Army? Your country needs you.”
And that’s how Atkinson became one of two Army “Hello Girls” from Idaho.
The Army had tried using men in the Signal Corps to operate telephone exchanges, but they did not excel at it. Every switchboard operator in the United States was a woman. Rather than struggle through teaching all the men how to work the system, they recruited women for the job. More than 7,500 volunteered for the first 100 slots. Two hundred twenty-three women—and two men—became Signal Corps Operators.
They were the first group of women to be placed in a combat situation for the United States. Two of them were killed in action.
The operators needed to speak French and English. They were good at their jobs, taking just 10 seconds to connect one party to the next, six times faster than the men they replaced. They connected more than 26 million phone calls.
The women proudly wore Signal Corps uniforms, served under commissioned officers, wore rank insignia and dog tags, took the Army oath, and were subject to court-martial. But when the war was over, they found out they were really “civilian contractors.”
The Army “Hello Girls” were largely forgotten for decades. Then, in 1979 the surviving “Hello Girls,” 19 in all, including Atkinson, who was nearly 88 at the time, received formal U.S. Army Honorable Discharges presented by the senior Army officer of the state where they resided. Accompanying Atkinson’s discharge was a letter that read “…whose service in World War I encompassed the period November 28, 1917, through June 30, 1919, be considered active military service the U.S. Armed Forces for the purpose of all laws administered by the Veterans; Administration.”
In 2021, legislation passed Congress to award a single Congressional Gold Medal to the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit.
In anticipation of the question, I know little about the second Idaho “Hello Girl.” Her name was Hazel May Hammond and I believe she was from Sandpoint.