MAJOR GENERAL MARY E. CLARKE
Mary Clarke was born in Rochester, New York on December 3, 1924. She attended the Rochester Immaculate Conception Grammar School and Rochester West High School.
She worked while in high school to help her mother after the death of her father Richard H. Clarke, a World War I mess sergeant.
Mary’s first jobs after high school were as a secretary and defense worker before she turned twenty-one. On August 10, 1945, at the age of 21, she enlisted in the Women’s Army Corps (WAC) just before World War II ended. Clarke was expecting to serve until the war ended, plus a few additional months. She went on to serve for 36 years making a career of the U.S. Army and the woman that has served the longest in the military. Most of this time she spent in the Women’s Army Corps.
Clarke did her basic training at Fort Des Moines Provisional Army Officer Training School in Iowa. Upon completion of basic training she was then immediately assigned to being a supply sergeant at Camp Stoneman, California. Her next assignment was in 1948 at Berlin, Germany. While in Berlin she was in the middle of the Berlin Airlift crisis. She then served at the U.S. Army Chemical Center and Valley Forge General Hospital. Clarke then recruited for a year. Clarke attended the WAC Officer Candidate School at Camp Lee and after the schooling she became a WAC commissioned officer as a second lieutenant on September 29, 1949. Then she served two years at a WAC unit as a commanding officer in Tokyo before going back to the United States.
Clarke then held several officer’s positions from 1958 through 1971 in Texas, Alabama, Maryland, California and Washington, D.C. In Washington, D.C., she worked at the Office of Equal Opportunity and Deputy Chief of Staff for Personnel. She also did WAC training and advisement. Clarke was promoted to colonel in 1972 to become the commander of the U.S. WAC Center and School in Fort McClellan. In 1974 she was the chief of the WAC Advisory Office. On 1 August 1975, Clarke became brigadier general and served as the final director of the WAC. In 1976 she had special courses at the U.S. Military Academy Preparatory School to prepare women to attend military academies, since women were then allowed to attend by an executive order of President Gerald Ford.
Clarke was the ninth and last director of the WAC (1975–1978) until it was dissolved at the end of her tenure in 1978.
“This action today in no way detracts from the service of WACs who have been pioneers—in fact, it honors them,” she said during the WAC’s disestablishment ceremony. She called the action “the culmination of everything the members of the Women’s Army Corps have been striving for for 36 years….the Army’s public commitment to the total integration of women in the United States Army as equal partners.”
The WAC was no more, but Clarke’s Army career was still in high gear. The first woman to serve as major general, she commanded the U.S. Army Military Police School and Chemical Schools and was the first woman to command a major Army installation, Fort McClellan, named in honor of the general-in-chief of the U.S. Army during the Civil War.
After this assignment she was given the rank of a two-star general and promoted to major general in June 1978. She then immediately became commander of the U.S. Army Military Police School and Training Center upon leaving the WAC and during her tenure, oversaw the return of the U.S. Army Chemical School in 1979 to its former home. Now with three major missions, a basic Training Brigade, the Army Military Police School and the Army Chemical School, she became commander of The U.S. Army Military Police and Chemical Schools, Training Center, Fort McClellan, Alabama. It was the first time a woman commanded a major Army post. Clarke was the first woman to achieve the rank of major general in the U.S. Army, in 1978.
Clarke was director of human resources development for the Office of the Deputy Chief of Staff in Washington, D.C. in 1980. She was there until she retired in 1981.
During her tenure as the Deputy Chief of Staff, she made many improvements in the quality and training of soldiers enrolled in basic training and was the subject of immense media interest, especially during the national debate over the role of women in combat. She was summoned before Congress to hear her views and perspective on the subject, as well as Army sexual harassment policies, which were just becoming part of the debate in the larger society, as women were making rapid advances in all aspects of American society.
She served for 36 years, which at the time made her the longest serving women in US Army history.
She retired in 1981 from active duty but for years was active in Army committees, devoted time to her favorite charities and supported the growth of the Women’s Army Corps Museum at Fort Lee, Virginia, after it was relocated from Fort McClellan, Alabama, where she spent much of her career as soldier and leader.
Clarke died June 10, 2011, in San Antonio, Texas at the Army Residence Community.
She is buried at the Fort Sam Houston National Cemetery in Bexar County, Texas.
|1st Row||Legion of Merit|
|2nd Row||Meritorious Service Medal with oak leaf cluster||Army Commendation Medal with oak leaf cluster||Good Conduct Medal|
|3rd Row||Women’s Army Corps Service Medal||American Campaign Medal||World War II Victory Medal|
|4th Row||Army of Occupation Medal with Berlin Airlift device and “GERMANY” clasp||Medal for Humane Action||National Defense Service Medal with oak leaf cluster|
Enlisted – August 10, 1945
Second lieutenant – September 29, 1949
First lieutenant – September 7, 1953
Captain – April 30, 1954
Major – October 5, 1961
Lieutenant colonel – November 24, 1965
Colonel – 1972
Brigadier general – 1975
Major general – June 1978
CHIEF OPERATOR GRACE BANKER
Grace Derby Banker served in the signal corps in WWI. Grace was born in Passaic, N.J., in 1892. Grace attended college at Barnard College in New York. While there she was on the class baseball team, students’ exchange committee, and was in many different clubs. She majored in both French and history. After graduation, Grace worked as a telephone operator in New York.
Working for American Telephone and Telegraph Company, or ATT&T, she excelled quickly. She became one of the only women in the company at that time to work as an instructor in the long-distance division.
In December of 1917, Grace came across an Army recruiting ad targeted directly at her. The Army was looking for women switchboard operators who could speak French and English. So of course, she volunteered.
The switchboard was fairly new technology at this time and many of the operators were women. Women were significantly cheaper for companies to employ they often earned between one half to one quarter less than a man and would endure horrible working conditions longer than men.
The Army also found that women could often connect a call much faster than the male recruits they were training. We are talking about a difference of about 50 seconds. In war that is a lifetime.
So, women began volunteering. There were over 7,000 volunteers for this program, but only about 230 served. The women were trained by the Army, issued dog tags, uniforms, and held to the standards of Army regulations.
In March of 1918, Grace was stationed Chaumont, France as the Chief Operator of more than 30 U.S. Signal Corps’ women telephone operators. They worked in a post about 160 miles or a 3-hour drive from the German border.
In July of 1918, while deployed in France, her father passes away. Grace stayed in France and continued to work for the war effort.
The work these women did was extremely demanding. The Signal Corps was often responsible for connecting over 150,000 calls a day. Which is an amazing number when you think of the decade we are talking about and what equipment they had to use. So not only are they fielding an extremely high number of calls, the codes they used for Operational Security changed frequently. We are talking everyday these women had to relearn the codes for towns and units.
It wasn’t like they could write this stuff down either, the messages coming through the switchboards was often top-secret information. The operators had to memorize the new codes every time they changed.
September in 1918, the battle for the St. Mihiel salient began. This was the first large campaign of the war led by the Americans.
It was Grace and the five other women she led, in Telephone Unit No. 1, who manned the switchboards, day and night during the campaign. They worked at their stations with artillery cannons firing in the distance, and their gas masks and gear hung next to them on their chairs.
Grace wrote in her diary that she “Never spent more time at the office and never enjoyed anything more,” and that “My girls work like beavers.”
After five days the battle of St. Mihiel ended and the Allied forces were successful in pushing back the German forces.
After the war, she was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal, the Army’s highest honor, on May 22, 1919.
Grace’s Distinguished Service Medal citation read: “She served with exceptional ability as chief operator in the Signal Corps exchange at General Headquarters, American Expeditionary Forces, and later in a similar capacity at 1st Army Headquarters. By untiring devotion to her exacting duties under trying conditions she did much to assure the success of the telephone service during the operations of the 1st Army against the St. Mihiel salient and to the north of Verdun [Meuse Argonne].”
In September 1919, Grace was interviewed by the Evening World, of New York. In her interview she was quoted that
“If you were to ask every girl in my party about her hardships, I know she would answer that she had none worth mentioning,” she said, “and that her work overseas helped her in every way and made her a bigger person than she was before.”
After returning from the war Grace worked in the office of Woodrow Wilson.
In May of 1922, Grace married Eugene Paddock and they had four children together. They moved to Scarsdale NY in 1924 where Grace lived until she passed.
Grace died of cancer at the age of 68 on Dec. 17, 1960.
In typical fashion for that time, Grace and the other women telephone operators were treated as volunteers or civilian contractors. They were not recognized as service members, and were discharged without veteran’s status. Many women fought to receive this recognition, but the legislation wasn’t official until 1977. The few 18 surviving telephone operators were finally able to receive recognition as veterans and benefits for their service.
The women operators gain popularity a few years ago with a documentary film called “The Hello Girls,” that was made about these amazing women and their story.
Author Elizabeth Cobbs also wrote The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers.
Hello Girls is also an Off-Broadway musical
There was a bill to award a posthumous Congressional Gold Medal to the Signal Corps Female Telephone Operators Unit was introduced by Senators Jon Tester and Marsha Blackburn in 2019.
There is also a book titled “Girls on the Line,” which is a fictionalized account of the women’s story.
I highly encourage everyone to read about these amazing women if you have the time. Their story is fascinating.
Hello Girls musical: https://www.59e59.org/shows/show-detail/the-hello-girls/
The Hello Girls: America’s First Women Soldiers https://www.amazon.com/dp/0674971477?tag=npr-online-20&linkCode=osi&th=1&psc=1
Photo credit: https://www.theworldwar.org/learn/women/grace-banker