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The American Red Cross Overseas Association (ARCOA) held its annual conference in Pittsburgh from Thursday, May 30, through Sunday, June 2, 2019. Roughly 100 people from across the country whose service goes back to World War II attended the event.
The event included special tours of the city and business meetings, and culminated with a banquet at the Omni William Penn Hotel in which WQED Producer and Director David Solomon discussed his documentary on the life of Elizabeth Black, a Pittsburgh native and well-known portrait artist who served in a Red Cross Clubmobile in Europe during World War II, painting portraits of the people she met during her service.
A highlight of the Conference occurred at the Heinz History Center on Friday, May 31, when conference participants – many of whom were Donut Dollies from the Vietnam War era – had the opportunity to meet with members of the Veterans Breakfast Club – many of whom were Vietnam veterans. Nearly 140 participated in the event.
Since World War II, the Red Cross Clubmobile has traveled with soldiers in the field, providing entertainment for the troops so they could relax during their off-duty hours and unwind from the tensions of war. During World War II and the Korean War, Clubmobile volunteers were often seen making and handing out doughnuts and coffee to the soldiers.
One such Clubmobile volunteer was Mary Lou Chapman (pictured above), who at 100 years-old shared with the group her stories of serving during World War II.
In Vietnam, nearly 630 young women answered the call to serve with a Red Cross Clubmobile. These ladies, often referred to as Donut Dollies, traveled by helicopter, truck, and jeep in 17 units throughout the country, providing refreshments, audience-participation entertainment, and a sense of comfort to military forces serving in the field. At times, these brave young women were even forced to seek shelter in underground bunkers as enemy mortar and rocket attacks hit their locations.
“We really did not make doughnuts and deliver them to the field in Vietnam,” noted ARCOA member and former Red Cross Clubmobile volunteer Debby MacSwain when asked about the name Donut Dollies. “In fact, I only saw one doughnut during my year-long deployment. It was given to me by an Army Sergeant and I ate it!”
Donut Dollies during the Vietnam era may not have made doughnuts, but they did provide entertainment for the troops.
“Programs included cockroach races, sing-a-longs, ping pong, and pool tournaments. It was fun and took their minds off their work for a bit,” MacSwain stated.
The event at the Heinz History Center gave these Red Cross Clubmobile volunteers the opportunity to meet with the soldiers they once served, sharing emotional stories from the battlefield – stories that only those who were there would truly understand and appreciate.
MacSwain commented, “About my third week in Vietnam, my partner and I flew in a Chinook helicopter to Dong Ha, where we visited a field hospital… I was asked by a surgeon to hold the hand of a soldier who was going to die. I sat there, holding his hand and looking at this young man, thinking that he could have been my brother. That experience did something to me… it’s when I grew up.”
Although Red Cross Clubmobile volunteers remained in Vietnam through 1972, MacSwain’s tour of duty ended shortly after Christmas in 1969 when she and her partner decorated a Christmas tree in the mess hall of battalion while they were out on a mission.
MacSwain concluded, “On Christmas day we walked into that mess hall and saw something we had never seen. Every one of those soldiers was in civilian clothes. They all stood and clapped for us.”
MacSwain was part of a unit consisting of nine Red Cross volunteers. One did not survive her deployment. During her deployment year of 1969, it is estimated that 300,000 troops were served by the Red Cross Clubmobile each month.
Founded in 1949, the American Red Cross Overseas Association (ARCOA) is an independent national organization with a fellowship of men and women who have, across many decades and countless miles, experienced the rewards and hardships of serving abroad to assist United States Military personnel, help disaster sufferers, lend knowledge, and support developing Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies as they seek to broaden their capability.
The Veterans Breakfast Club, formed in the suburbs of Pittsburgh in 2008, creates communities of listening around veterans and their stories to ensure that this living history will never be forgotten, that their stories will help people to be better educated, healed, and inspired.