Women code operators were crucial in World War I, as new exhibit shows

U.S. Signal Corps women telephone operators.
U.S. Signal Corps women telephone operators. National World War I Museum and Memorial

In the First World War, women telephone operators were often within range of the big German guns. But they stayed at their posts until the end of the war — 100 years ago this year.

Afterward, they were dismissed as mere volunteers, an insult that was not corrected until 1977 after many of them were dead. The survivors finally got their recognition and benefits.

That story is among those told in a new exhibit opening Tuesday in Exhibit Hall at the National World War I Museum and Memorial. "Crucible: Life and Death in 1918" relies upon the museum's vast collection of seldom-seen items from the Great War.

That includes the tunic worn by Grace Banker, who received the Distinguished Service Medal for her work as chief operator of the U.S. Signal Corps' women telephone operators. It has never been exhibited before.

The work involved frequently changing codes.

"The girls had to speak both French and English," Banker once recalled, "and they also had to understand American doughboy French" — communications from troops who could barely speak that language.

Banker died in 1960. Her son donated her items to the museum.

Senior Curator Doran Cart said the last year of the war was a momentous period.

"In recent history, one would be hard-pressed to identify a singular year with greater turmoil and upheaval with long-lasting consequences than 1918," Cart said in an announcement of the new exhibit.

American soldiers fought alongside allied British, French and White Russian troops from Belleau Wood to Vladivostok. The Western Front was a wasteland after four years of stalemated war.

"Trying to make sense of this incredibly tumultuous period of time is challenging, and through (this exhibit) we share how the world changed forever through highly personal stories of the people who lived through it," Cart said.

The new exhibit will run through March 10, 2019, and is included with a general admission ticket to the museum and memorial.

110th Sanitary Train, 35th Division first aid_preview.jpeg
In 1918 France, the wounded were treated in an old church by the 110th Sanitary Train, 35th Division. National World War I Museum and Memorial