From the cratered Hells of No-Man’s Land
To the switchboard where you sit,
There are none who serve so loyally,
We know that you do your “bit.”
For the world’s bound round with a copper wire
With you on the outer end,
Each flashing light that you plug in the night
A message of hope you send.
You sit all alone at a magic loom
And weave from out of the air
The words of faith, of home, of love,
That go to our boys “out there.”
For the war’s not won with bursting shells,
Shrapnel or cannon alone,
You’re doing your part with all your heart,
Little girl of the telephone.
— Telephone topics, “To the Telephone Girl,” By Frances A. Johnson, Philadelphia Toll Operator
This story is inspired by one woman. She started off as an engraved name on the Groveton – Northumberland New Hampshire World War I memorial. At first I didn’t grasp the significance–one woman among all the men’s names. I presumed she must be a nurse as all of the WWI women I had already researched, but I was so very wrong.
This woman, Agnes Theresa Houley, led me down a research rabbit hole into a piece of WWI history unknown to most. I had found Agnes living in the Boston Massachusetts area, a big change from her small-town upbringing. What was she doing there?
Agnes Theresa Houley was born 9 January 1891 in Groveton NH, daughter and 4th child of George Henry & Fanny (Williams) Houley. Her father was the saw mill foreman the year she was born. In the 1900 census Agnes was living in Northumberland NH with parents and siblings: Mary, George J., Robert J., Elizabeth Ann, Jared F. aka Gerald, Henry P., and Alice C. [Her brothers George, Gerald F. and Henry served in the military, and their names can also be found on the WWI monument].
Agnes T. Houley graduated from Groveton High School in 1909, according to Groveton’s Becky Craggy (and my thanks again to her for her local history help). Her name “Agnus” was noted in a list of former graduates in their 1929 yearbook. Sometime between 1909 and 1918 Agnes had moved to Boston, trained as a telephone operator, and was working as a toll operator at Boston Toll.
When the United States went to war in Europe, they had first utilized French and Belgian telephone operators who frequently knew little English. This created a communication problem and a concerted effort was made to recruit toll telephone operators who were bilingual (in English and French) to work for the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps. They were quickly dubbed “Hello Girls,” and they often worked in dangerous situations near the front lines. A group of six women telephone operators working at St. Mihiel were awarded citations for bravery.
Agnes T. Houley was in the last group of telephone operators (of 223 women total) sent to Europe. Agnes sailed in October of 1918, one month before the Great War was declared over on November 11th. She remained working there for 8 months–sailing from St. Nazaire, France aboard the ship Ryndam on 19 June 1919, and arriving in Hoboken New Jersey on 29 June 1919. Like the nurses who returned home, the telephone operators, to their dismay, quickly discovered they were considered contractors and not military veterans. As a result they received little or no recognition and no military benefits.
The best description I can share with you of what Agnes experienced can be found in The Boston Post newspaper of 27 October 1918 that also posted her photograph. The headline read WHAT SIX YANKEE HELLO GIRLS DID IN THE ST. MIHIEL BATTLE [please note: Agnes T. Houley was not one of these six who were at St. Mihiel]. For six days and nights, with the scream of shells for an accompaniment, six American girl operators of the Signal Corps handled the calls upon which depended the success or failure of the St. Mihiel drive, at the headquarters of the First American Army in France.
– Handling an average of 40,000 words a day on the eight lines they operated, these plucky young women worked at all hours, both day and night, as the drive proceeded.
– And these operators fought for the chance to serve in the zone where German planes flew frequently, dropping their damaging bombs, fought for the privilege and were chosen out of a total of 225 girl operators, all members of the Signal Corps.
– The half dozen tired operators moved with the First Army headquarters to another part of the line as the men pushed their lines forward. Here again they performed valuable service.
-The girls who were not picked among the first six are going to get their chance at handling the big calls in the thick of the fighting, because the officer who did the choosing promised to rotate his crews of operators as often as advisable. This was the only way of stopping the New England phone girls from going immediately over the top. It is supposed.
– Stars and Stripes, the official paper of the American army abroad, makes note of the bravery of the girls in a recent issue and praises them highly for their work under fire.
– The last telephone unit to leave this country for France, and the sixth by the way, included 14 New England young women.
– Miss Marion C. Swan, former junior chief operator at the Fall River telephone exchange, was in charge of the unit as senior. The other New England operators in the unit are:
– Christine V. Bickford of Camden, Me.; Sarah Fairbrother of Ellsworth, Me.; Mary A. Steele of Portland, Me.; Mary A. Seeley, Annie F. Sheerin, Ruth Keeping, Abbie E. Mitchell, AGNES T. HOULEY, and Elsie L. Wolloff of Boston Toll; Helen M. Hayes of the A.T. & T. Co., Boston; Martha M. Henshaw, Worcester; Irene A. Gifford, New Bedford; and Mae A. Ganley, Brockton.
– All of the young women in the unit are experienced toll operators. Miss Swan had been with the company since 1906.
– The following letter was written by her to Miss Eva J. Cook, chief operator at the Fall River exchange: “Dear Eva J. and Girls–I suppose you are all interested to know just what I’ve been doing since I left old F.R. To begin with I had to be “Jabbed,” as all soldiers do, and I confess I did not feel as well as I might for a day. My shopping came next and I will never forget how I ran around N.Y. town getting lost, etc., but succeeding in getting all my army regulation outfit. Sunday, all the girls arrived. Of course not all at the same time. They are a fine looking group of girls, as you will see when you receive the photograph. They came from all parts of the country–Michigan, Minnesota, San Francisco, San Antonio, Idaho, Chicago, California, Illinois, etc..”
– “I have one girl who came from France, and has been here only a year. She has a very pretty name–Rose Marie Montauzen, and is a very sweet girl. I am going to use her as a French instructor aboard ship. I told her of my plans and she said, “Wiz pleasure, I shall be very glad.” There are at least eight university girls and they are splendid types. The first at F.R. who were at Buzzards Bay last summer, Ethel Clarkin, Loretta Sullivan, etc., will be surprised to hear that Mae Ganley of Brockton is one of my group girls. There are also a few girls who are fair, fat and I’d say 30–full of fun and always can see the bright side of everything. They are to get their uniforms Thursday and I am anxious to see them all dressed up.”
–“Labor day 18 of the girls had to be inoculated at Hoboken. They all went through fine with only one exception. That young lady was really very ill and I had to ride back with her in the army ambulance–which was quite an experience. At the present time the girls are getting their shopping done and I believe that takes us right up to date. Although I like the girls very much they cannot take the place of the Fall River girls in my estimation.”
– “I will try and keep you will informed and shall be pleased to hear from any of the girls. Kindly let Mr. Collins read this as it is just what I would have him know. With love, Marion.”
Now, back to more about Agnes after the war ended. In the 1920 census Agnes was single, boarding in Boston MA at 1 East Newton Street and working as a telephone operator. The Massachusetts marriage index shows that she married in 1921, in Boston to Leo O’Brien. They had five sons, Hugh L, George F., James R., Gerard T., and Stephen J. By 1930 they were living as a family in Boston Massachusetts, Agnes is at home raising her children, and Leo is shown to be a New England Telephone installer.
Next I discovered that Agnes and Leo had moved to 83 Navarre Street in Hyde Park, MA through her husband’s obituary which reads as follows: Boston Traveler Newspaper June 18, 1962. OBITUARIES. O’BRIEN–Of Hyde Park, June 17, Leo H., beloved husband of Agnes T. (Houley), father of Hugh L, George F., James R. of the Boston Police Dept., Gerard T., Stephen J; brother of John A and Jennie G. Residence 83 Navarre St., Funeral from the F.J. Higgins Funeral Home 4236 Washington St (Roslindale Sq). Wednesday June 20 at 8 AM. Solemn Requiem Mass in the Sacred Heart Church at 9 o’clock. Relatives and friends invited. Visiting hours 2-5 and 7-10. Late member of the Telephone Pioneers of American and the Alexander Graham Bell Post #299 A.L. Parking in rear of funeral home on Cummins highway.
Though I could not find an obituary for Agnes, I did discover her death date of 25 June 1978, corroborated by the SSDI. I am not sure of her burial place, but I suspect it may be St. Joseph Cemetery in West Roxbury where at least one of her sons is buried.
Six months after Agnes (Houley) O’Brien’s death, in November of 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed a bill that gave the “Hello Girls” their recognition as female veterans of the U.S. Army. It was too late for Agnes to receive the honor in person. I hope wherever she now rests, that a flag is placed on her grave on Memorial Day.
SEE also: New Hampshire WWI Military: Heroes of Groveton – Northumberland
[Editor’s Note: this story is part of an on-going series about heroic New Hampshire men and women of World War I. Look here for the entire listing].
New England Telephone Museum: An Unexpected Repository (a friend’s blog)
Across the Wire: Blog of the New England Telephone Museum
Signal Book, United States Army 1916; Conventional Telephone Signals
Toll Telephone Practice, J.B. Thiess & Guy A Joy, 1912