Most of us, I surmise, would be considered the “little people.” You know, someone prominent stands on stage and says he/she wouldn’t be there but for the “little people.” That’s us. The Hello Girls: The Story of America’s First Female Soldiers brings to light an important group of “little people” vital to U.S. victory in World War I and never recognized adequately until the late 1970’s.
Back in the olden days, when we had phones attached to the wall. No, let’s go further than that. In the 1920’s the phone was just becoming a thing. Subscribers would pick up a handset, turn a crank on a box, tell the switchboard operator who you’re calling, and that operator would connect you with your party. Almost exclusively women, this army of operators would manage the phone connections of an entire city. Rightly or wrongly, it was believed that women were best suited for this high-stress level of work.
When World War I broke out, the U.S. Military realized that bringing an elaborate phone system to the frontlines against Germany would be vital. It allowed soldiers and leaders to communicate battle plans as well as facilitate calls for needed armed support in the middle of battle. When the call went out for volunteers to act as operators, all needed positions were immediately filled by eager young women, known as the “Hello Girls.”
“…their ability to facilitate communication instantly saved lives and won the war.”
Director James Theres tells their little-known story in the documentary The Hello Girls. Theres’ doc is divided into two parts. The first is the heroism of the Hello Girls. Rightfully painted as heroes, their role was vital to the war effort in World War I. They were placed in harm’s way as their first barracks were bombed by the enemy and their ability to facilitate communication instantly saved lives and won the war.
Their story is told through 100-year-old letters, photos, archival footage, and talking head interview with historians and family members. It was almost as if they were soldiers themselves. They had uniforms, served with distinction, and swore oaths just like their fellow soldiers. They served their country without complaint and because of the nature of their job, the Hello Girls were the last unit to return to the States when the war ended.
As with all stories from a patriarchal society, the second half of the documentary covers the next 60 years as the last remaining Hello Girls fight and petition Congress to acknowledge their contribution to the war effort. Tossed aside after the war ended, and viewing parades from the sidelines, The Hello Girls were not considered U.S. veterans even though they were in just as much danger as their fellow soldiers. They were ineligible for veteran benefits, medals, or at the very least, recognition.
“…fight ended in 1977 with the issuance of honorable discharge letters to the surviving 36 Hello Girls.”
Not willing to allow their memory to vanish into obscurity, Merle Egan from Helena Montana led the charge in the fight for simple recognition by the U.S. government and military. This fight ended in 1977 with the issuance of honorable discharge letters to the surviving 36 Hello Girls.
Documentaries like The Hello Girls are not easy to put together, mainly because the source material is almost impossible to get. When you can get a hold of it, the condition of photos are not exactly the best, and much of the archival footage comes from standard stock footage. Also, interviews are generally virtually all second hand or from historians, born decades from the actual event. The story of The Hello Girls is just as important and interesting in spite of these “shortcomings.”
Director Theres pieces together a compelling story of the “little people” for whom victory was not possible. The film portrays them as underdogs in their fight against the misogynistic government bureaucracy. Whether it was sexism, laziness, or the fragile male ego, The Hello Girls shows that men never had the monopoly on patriotism and personal sacrifice for their country.
The Hello Girls (2018) Directed by James Theres. The Hello Girls screened at the 2018 G.I. Film Festival San Diego.
7 out of 10 stars