Soldiers in the Service

Soldiers in the Service

Young Women Telephone Operators at Camp Upton, a Trained and Disciplined Force

By Dorothy Thorne

The Telephone Review
December 1917

           OUR Yaphank central office, situated in the heart of Camp Upton and operated by seventeen plucky young women, who are not afraid of hardships when it comes to serving Uncle Sam, is evidence enough to anyone who visits it that Camp Upton is full of real soldiers, the women not excepted. Certainly in appearance the “girl soldier” of Camp Upton’s switchboard in no way resembles the clipped-haired uniformed feminine warrior who is now familiar to Sunday supplement readers. Though their tasks are so vastly different as not to hear comparison, the spirit and indomitable pluck of both are of the same stamp.

        A journey of fifteen miles in an open motor bus, over roads that rival the mud of Flanders, every morning at six, and back again fifteen miles through evenings as black as night. with a cutting wind to keep you company when blow-outs are repairing—this sort of things hints at some of the difficulties which beset transportation at its best between Riverhead and the Camp. For the girls must live at Riverhead and commute to the Camp every day. The first group of operators have the long ride, but those who go on duty at 8:30 make the journey each morning by train to Manorville and thence by the operators’ motor bus eight miles to Camp. In early July, acres of pine and oak woods stood where now the miles of dirt roads take their way into the Camp, so it is more a miracle that there should be real dirt roads at all than that they should be deep-dusty in dry weather, and mud to the hubs in rain.

       This difficult traveling will soon be ended, however, for the prophet, who knows, tells us that before the weather gets much colder there will be a home for the operators right in the Camp. Thirty miles a day is rather too hard a trip to be anything more than a temporary expedient and there is nothing near Camp Upton but Camp Upton. So not far from the central office building is to be erected a comfortable house for the operators, and it will be a cheery spot with all the comforts of home and all the fascination and inspiration of Camp.

       There will he a house mother in charge who will chaperone and care for the girls, see that they have three good, hot meals a day, and provide in every way for their comfort and health. There will be a victrola, and plenty of good books, and everything possible to make the free hours of the girls enjoyable. The plans of the house are made, and the scheme of furnishings worked out. Soon the necessary arrangements for the building will he made and then it will not be long before the operators will have quarters of the most complete comfort, right beside their work.

Just a sample of the Condition of the Roads After a Rain.

        After the long ride through the green and russet wilderness of pine and oak, with Mr. Leonard at the wheel, navigating expertly to avoid the deepest snares of the morassed ruts, the car comes along a sort of ridge and there is the whole great Camp. Unthinkably more huge than even an accelerated imagination has painted it, it lies gleaming in the morning sun for miles ahead. On what seems to be the far horizon is a low ridge on which are several buildings. The flag waving over it indicates that headquarters is there. 

A Group of the Yaphank Traffic Force One Morning Just After Arriving in Camp Last Autumn. The Snapshot from Which this is Enlarged was taken by Sergeant Patterson. Mr. Orth, District Traffic Manager, is at the Extreme Right, and Miss Tompkins Third from the Right, Standing

      Companies of easy-gaited men in olive drab come across country and up the wide road, starting out on long hikes. To one who has evidently not thought as fast in the last weeks as Camp Upton has acted, their easy march and military bearing show how far those few weeks have gone in the making of an army. In one place the road is filled with soldiers, ranks broken, and so narrow is the lane they open for the car to pass it seems they will let it run over them before they will sac­rifice an opportunity, down there in the heart of “no-girl_land,” to see nine or ten girls all at once!

        Past row after row of two-story frame buildings, with wide spaces between, each with its substantial log coal bin in the “door-yard,” like a tiny log cabin, roofless, filled with coal,— past barracks, Post Exchange, storehouses, Y.M.C.A. houses, and more barracks, the road soon leads beyond that distant headquarters hill, and there is just another such wide stretch, built up as thickly as that we have already passed through. It seems there is no end to the camp, but the end of our journey is at hand. On the slope of headquarters hill, not far from the neat frame bungalow, in keeping with the rest of the buildings of the camp, which is General Bell’s house, stands the “Telephone and Telegraph Building,” a low frame structure which accommodates the Yaphank central office. A flagpole in front flies the white flag with the large “T” upon it, which signifies the telephone headquarters of the Camp, and just below the flag hang the two white lights, horizontally, the regulation sign of a military camp telephone office at night.

The Telephone and Telegraph Building at Camp Upton, Showing the Flag Staff in Front with the
Sign of the Army Telephone on it.

        Inside the office one feels immediately the same atmosphere of businesslike concentration, the same disciplined, ordered work, the same sense of quiet effectiveness, which first impresses the visitor to any telephone exchange. A great stove heats the room, for furnaces are as yet unknown, but otherwise the appearance is that of any central office of our Company. But stand near the switch-board for a moment and listen to the low voices of the girls as they work, and see if there is anything to tell you that you are watching the nerve centre of one of the greatest organisms of the country, one of Uncle Sam’s National Army camps.

“Base Hospital ? One moment please”…  Chief Signal Officer ?”…‘‘West Point ? Did you call West Point? Here is your party”… Plaza 2345” ...‘‘Thompson Starrett,… what extension, please ?“    Field Artillery ?‘‘ ... “Y M.C.A. Headquarters ?”… Quartermaster Corps ?”

       If the general appearance of the office is much like that of any other exchange of our Company, certain it is that the texture of the work, the actual traffic itself, is vastly different from the usual come and go mixture of social and business calls, weighty and unimportant, rushed or lackadaisically given messages which make up civilian traffic. Though a telephone call is, to an operator, always au important call, always one to be completed with all possible dispatch, the imagination of the onlooker is tempted to play with the significance of the calls that go over these military wires. Here at Camp Upton there is no time for anything but urgent work. The importance of the messages is immediate, in the preparation of our great fighting force, and the responsibility of the telephone operators, in putting them through speedily and smoothly, is distinct.

       How well they have been discharging that responsibility was suggested in the chance remark of an officer in the Quartermaster Corps, on the train from Camp Upton, when he observed to another officer—who was also a telephone man, though the speaker did not know it—that if there were any in Camp who ought to get what they wanted it was the telephone operators, they had done such splendid work, and for his part he would be glad of a chance to do something to show his appreciation of the fine work they had been doing from the first, under all kinds of trying conditions. Nothing was too good for them

        Miss Irene Tompkins, suburban chief operator of Long Island, who has been guiding the fortunes of the operation of the Yaphank switchboard since it was given to the young women operators on September 3, happened to be in another car on the same train, and the officer—telephone man made no delay in coming to tell her. It was such sincere, unconscious evidence of the feeling of the officers in Camp toward the girls who were handling their calls, and so speeding and facilitating their work, that it was doubly valuable. Fortunately the scribe was there to hear the words (which else would never have come to light, such is modesty) and see the smile and glow of pleasure which shone in Miss Tompkin’s face at these words of admiration for the good work her girls were doing.

       Before the weekends and holidays comes the rush of traffic from the pay-stations. All the week there is a steady stream of official and administrative business, flowing rapidly over the wires, while the soldiers are busy with the complex activities of their training. But the approach of a “day-off” means plans—plans for visitors at Camp, or perhaps for a day at home, or too true, a sudden change of plans, “No furlough, try to come down here.” This means that the booths in  the Y. M. C. A. houses and elsewhere are full and each has its long waiting line. No, it isn’t a case of “busy hour” in the Yaphank office; it is a whole day full of peak load once a week. And what is holiday for the soldiers in olive drab is work and more work for the girl “soldiers of the switchboard.”


        Perhaps the most soldierly’ characteristic of our girls at Yaphank is their matter-of-fact attitude toward themselves and their work there. There is no self—consciousness about the patriotic service they are rendering, no romancing, no posing, nothing but a quite professional disregard of anything spectacular in their position. Theirs is the real military attention to the discipline and the business itself the decorative effect, the picturesque they leave to others less busy with essentials.

        Away from the switchboard the Yaphank operators are a very normal, jolly set of young women. One end of the little “Telephone and Telegraph Building” is reserved for their sitting room, dining-room, cloak-room, combined, and here the noon periods are spent with as much fun as in any of the more spacious quarters of a city exchange. In one corner of this versatile chamber is a tiny kitchenette, with oilstove, icebox, porcelain sink, table, and dresser full of dishes, and utensils, so that a cup of tea or coffee may be made, or even some real house­keeping indulged in—a good make­shift until the house is ready. There is no chance for outdoor sports during the noon hours, for the central office is literally in the midst of the camp, Signal Corps barracks on one side, and officers’ quarters on the other, and indeed operators have rather more than enough outside air, they sometimes feel, in their thirty miles of outdoor traveling each day.

       Since September third the girl operators have been “manning” the present Yaphank switchboard, a common battery board of eight positions, to which two positions are soon to be added. Before this board was cut over, a four position magneto board occupied the present operators’ quarters, and before that, in a little shack, was working the historic 40-line magneto switchboard which was installed in the wilderness that was to be Camp Upton, in less than twenty-four hours after the order for service was given on June 29.

        The contractors were beginning their hurry-up job of building the camp in time for the arrival of the thousands of men about September first, the telephone plant men were working to make ready an adequate telephone system, for the city that was to spring up there, and so the tele­phone traffic over that little 40-line board was heavy and, as always, indispensable. Mr. John Ormond and Mr. Frank Sweeney arrived on July 1 to operate the board, day and night, and the days and nights of which that was the beginning were enough to have cooled their courage, could they or anyone have foreseen them. Mr. Ormond had been chief operator at the Madison Barracks exchange during the winter and spring, and Mr. Sweeney had been associated with him there. So they knew a good deal about the operation of military camp switch­boards, but this little board in a mosquito-ridden wilderness was something entirely new in the way of military work.

        Sergeant Patterson, formerly of the New Jersey Equipment Engineering Department, who was looking out for the making of the Camp Upton telephone system, and Mr. Ormond and Mr. Sweeney, camped together in the little shack which was then the central office. When the cots were in position there was no more room, even the door had to be blocked, and to put through the telephone calls at night it was a case of climbing across the other two, if the inside man was the one who happened to be awake, to reach the switchboard. But as a rule it was the exception if anyone happened to be asleep, for the mosquitoes made any rest next to impossible. The heavy rains which accompanied the work and did their best to retard it in the early weeks, and the underbrush not yet cleared away, both were fine for the mosquitoes—and they made existence in that part of the world worse than torture. Sometimes, in spite of the mosquito helmets which the men were obliged to wear, the conditions at the camp were so bad that in order to get forty winks of sleep during the entire night our men had to walk eight miles to the railway station at Manorville. The dampness played havoc with the food, too, and frequently decorations of green mould had to be overlooked, if one was to have anything to eat at all. But the boys lived through it all, and brought the telephone service and system through it with flying colors, turning over to the girl operators on September third an efficient system, which is growing all the time. Now Mr. Ormond is in charge of the public telephones of the Camp, and having been there continuously since the Camp was nothing but a stretch of woodland, and having gone through the whole gamut of the hardships which have made it what it is, he is one of the few who can really appreciate what the Camp has been made.

Mr. John Ormond, Telephone Operator at Camp Upton When the Mosquitoes
Tried to Decree there Should be no Camp there. Mr. Ormond is Now in charge
 of Public Telephones at the Camp.

        The story of the operation of the Yaphank switchboard, if written day by day from the beginning, would make a chapter of telephone history full of interesting and unique highlights. The chapter covering the first two months, while the camp was building, from June 29 to September 3, would be full of anecdote and real war-time experience. That of the first few months under the girl operators would be still another and a different illustration of the traditional heroism of the girl telephone operator, not for a few tense moments but for many tense weeks of trying but well taken and triumphant experience. It would be full of tales of long, hard rides, of accommodations that were cramped and inconvenient, of the inauguration of the new type of military switchboard, and of variations in methods of operating made necessary by the new conditions,—conditions before unknown, of the running of a great cantonment; full of all kinds of difficulties which the operator in the city or village will never know, that tale would be, but it would be full, too, of good fellowship and team work, and not without its humor. The chapter which would follow promises to be much more comfortable and easy, as far as circumstances go, for with the comple­tion of the operators’ home in the Camp, and the choice of the house­mother who will reign there, a new phase of life, a veritable taste of boarding-school days, and a very comfortable, jolly, and interesting time will open for the operators at Yaphank, our soldiers of the service.


Miss Marion B. Ketcham, Evening chief operator, Yaphank. Miss Creighton. Chief operator, and Miss Tompkins, Suburban Chief Operator of Long Island, whose Pictures Appeared in the November Telephone Review, were So Modest About Posing Again that it Frightened the Camera and the Pictures, Which Should Have Accompanied Miss Ketcham’s, Didn’t Come Out


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