I had the pleasure of meeting Holley Watts, of Verona, Virginia, for the first time at the Harrisonburg Military Support Fair last spring. I was sitting at the Red Cross table when a Vietnam veteran came up to me and asked if I’d seen the Donut Dolly. I was new to the Red Cross and did not know what a Donut Dolly was. She was easy to spot in her Donut Dolly baseball cap covered with assorted unit insignias and buttons. I introduced myself to her and she was full of stories. It was a busy day so I arranged to meet with her at a later date when she shared her story and poems with me. Holley is the author of the sold out book, Who Knew? Reflections on Vietnam, her memoir in poems and pictures of her time in ’66-’67 Vietnam. Her book caught the attention of Arrowhead Films of Austin, Texas who contacted her and invited her to co-write and narrate the documentary about Donut Dollies, called “A Touch of Home: The Vietnam War’s Red Cross Girls.”
This past fall, Holley invited me to attend the American Red Cross Overseas Memorial Ceremony at National Headquarters. The event honored Red Cross members who served overseas and passed away within the last year. The organizers also inducted members into the American Red Cross Legacy Group, those Red Cross volunteers and staff members who served overseas during World War II and in each war and conflict since. It was inspiring to be among so many selfless, caring individuals who gave and give freely of their time serving the members of all branches of our armed forces.
Holley Watts grew up in New York and graduated from Rosemont College with a degree in Psychology. Rather than continue to graduate school it was an American Red Cross brochure in the college placement office that caught her eye offering a unique, memorable year with plenty of travel–just what she was looking for. In September 1966, she participated in a two week training session at National Headquarters in Washington DC. Holley was one of 627 women serving in the Vietnam recreation program between 1965 and 1972, all of whom were at least twenty one years old and college graduates who had volunteered to take “a touch of home” to the combat zone. The “Donut Dolly” moniker these women inherited from their WWII and Korean conflict counterparts was a term of endearment that the men used and continue to use even now, almost 50 years later.
Their job was to raise troop morale by creating diversions for the men in both the field and in field hospitals using “Donut Dolly-adapted” versions of TV game shows like Concentration, sports and car quizzes. The DD’s created the props and rules for the ‘game shows in a box’ and some games were instant hits with the men. Concentration, for instance, used Playmate centerfolds where the men had to match the faces and bodies of the Playmate of the Month without being tripped up by the toothless bearded Gabby Hayes character.
Watts was stationed in DaNang, Chu Lai, An Khe and Cu Chi, Vietnam. Her tour was one year and her average work day lasted between twelve and fifteen hours. The team had a home base and, for the most part, flew to the men in the field by helicopter, averaging 17,500 air miles monthly. The women, emerging from the choppers wearing their light blue uniforms, were a sight for sore eyes. Often, they’d serve meals to the troops along with a smile and kind word. If time allowed, they’d play games with the troops.
Holley shared a story that stuck in my mind. One day while visiting with wounded soldiers in a hospital, she walked into a room and spotted a pilot who had been temporarily blinded by a phosphorus flare. Signaling to the others in the room not to let him know she was there, she went over to his bed and waved a perfumed tissue under his nose. Sniffing familiar perfume he said immediately, “Who’s here? You’re American, aren’t you!!!?” Everyone laughed. She sat down next to him and they chatted about home. It was the simple things that meant the most.
Holley said that when she attends events at The Wall in Washington, D.C., or the reunion of various units, she always wears something that identifies her as a Donut Dolly. She says she’s never felt so welcome.