During the Vietnam War, hundreds of female American Red Cross workers deployed overseas to provide support and a sympathetic ear to millions of U.S. service members.
Nicknamed “Donut Dollies” as an homage to the Red Cross women who handed out donuts to troops in previous wars, these Red Cross workers were part of the Red Cross Supplemental Recreational Activities Overseas (SRAO) program. The standards for them were higher than those of the military: They had to be at least 25 years old, college-educated, able to provide recommendation letters and pass physical exams, as well as have an “outstanding personality.”
Donut Dollies traveled by helicopter, truck and jeep to reach servicemen, and they too experienced the challenges and tragedies of war. They sometimes slept in bunkers instead of their beds during aerial attacks. They comforted those who had seen the horrors of war up-close. And, sadly, many of the troops they came to know and support were injured or killed.
These women also played an important part during World War I, World War II and the Korean Conflict.
WORLD WARS During World War I, the United States government requested the American Red Cross provide refreshments at railroad junctions, both at home and abroad, for the military on troop trains. As a result, the canteen service was founded and grew quickly. By the end of 1917, there were 85 canteen depots, 15 station restaurants and 430 smaller canteens.
The American Red Cross Canteen Service also served allied soldiers from France and Great Britain. In France, American Red Cross canteens were serving meals every month to nearly a million men in transit or on leave in Paris.
By the end of the war, the Red Cross was operating 700 fixed canteens. Refreshments were served to nearly 40 million members of the armed forces. This work was accomplished due to the sheer number of women - some 55,000 - who volunteered with the Red Cross during World War I.
Starting in WWII, the Red Cross mobilized its clubmobile program to provide food, drink, newspapers and other items for soldiers. The aim was to bring a taste of home to the frontlines.
Staffing the clubmobiles were American women who travelled throughout Great Britain and Europe between late 1942 until 1946, outfitted with coffee and doughnut making equipment, chewing gum, cigarettes, magazines and newspapers, a phonograph with loudspeakers and records. Each clubmobile carried three Red Cross workers.
Red Cross clubmobiles did not just serve in Great Britain. After the invasion of Normandy in June 1944, clubmobiles were sent into France. These women were stationed in nearby towns and would drive to different bases. The clubmobiles served throughout France, Germany, Italy, Belgium and Luxembourg until VE Day in 1945 and continued to service in post war Great Britain and the Army of Occupation in Germany until 1946.
KOREAN CONFLICT These Red Cross workers answered the call to duty again during the Korean War. In its early stages, they turned out up to 20,000 donuts a day for American soldiers disembarking troop ships in Pusan. In addition, the women hosted a weekly radio program on Armed Forces Korea Network Radio and distributed birthday cards to the troops.
The first Red Cross recreational center in Korea opened in November of 1950 and within months grew to 24 centers and mobile units. Services were provided to the military personnel of all the UN forces involved in the war.
BRAVERY The women who served during these conflicts were selfless, brave and resilient. Their service brought a touch of home to the frontlines — and compassion and comfort when service members needed it most. They faced similar dangers that those fighting did – incoming mortars, sniper and ground- to-air fire, and other wartime hardships and dangers to visit the troops.