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Hello Dollies!

By Cheryl Fries 
Originally published on HistoryNet.com. Published Online: March 17, 2011 
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Nearly a dozen Donut Dollies pose in the doorway of a Huey at Da Nang in September 1971. (Photo courtesy of Ann Muchmore)
Nearly a dozen Donut Dollies pose in the doorway of a Huey at Da Nang in September 1971. (Photo courtesy of Ann Muchmore)

"We were just out of college with a thirst for adventure and a desire to do something real" Holley Watts (1966-67)

The air popping "whop-whop" of an inbound slick was ordinarily no reason to catch infantryman Vergel Maples' attention. Just another resupply on another day digging another hole in the boonies, until he caught a glimpse of powder blue in the doorway. The excited cries of his fellow grunts rang through the dusty air: "It's the Donut Dollies! The Donut Dollies are here!" Maples had heard about the young Red Cross girls, but today was his first chance to see them, and it was a day he would never forget.

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 'It was as if the war was
in black and white, but when the Dollies came,
it suddenly turned to color'

Billy Dabel, U.S. Army (1969–70)

The Supplemental Recreation Overseas Program started in World War II, as the American Red Cross "close military support directive" took women to bases in Europe to deliver coffee and donuts to servicemen. Revived in Vietnam, the program become an airmobile morale boost to troops at landing zones, base camps and forward operating positions.

Vietnam's "Donut Dollies" may have inherited the WWII nickname, but their work was very different, as the women paired up in Hueys and airplanes, sometimes visiting as many as 10 locations in a day. Their mission was to take the men's minds off the war. Through diversionary games, delivering mail or serving up hot chow, astonished combat troops suddenly found themselves looking up from the war and into the smiling face of the girl next door.

The Donut Dollies went to Da Nang with the Marines in 1965. By the time the program ended in 1972, 627 had served in all operational areas, logging 2,125,000 air miles. Their airmobile capability allowed the relatively small number of Dollies to interact with literally hundreds of thousands of combat troops. Despite the inherent dangers and the ever-present horrors that they encountered, the Red Cross girls always had a ready smile for battle-weary troops.

John F. Kennedy's call to their innate patriotism inspired many Donut Dollies, while others wanted to break with the expected roles of women to experience the war. For some, like Joyce Rice Denke, the motivation was more personal. After her fiancée was killed in action, Denke jumped at the chance to go to Vietnam. "You didn't know, when you saw that guy, if he'd gotten the letter that day from his girlfriend before he went out on patrol," says Denke, "but at least you knew he'd gotten a smile from a Red Cross girl."

As one of the Dollies walked down the line at infantryman Maples' camp in 1967, mortars began falling around them. Maples grabbed the wide-eyed girl and threw her into his hole. "I was worried about her," he said. "She was so clean and so sweet. But I couldn't help but think—this might be a good way to die." Maples has always wished he could find that girl. "I was so awestruck by her that I'm not sure I ever thanked her for coming out there, for putting her life on the line for us."

 'Forget about the war.
Let's take your mind off
it for a few minutes'

Joyce Rice Denke (1969–70)

The donut dollies developed the morale-boosting programs they took to the field. Elaborate, competitive trivia games engaged even reticent soldiers. "There's nothing like a little competition to get a 19-year-old going," recalls Emily Strange. The women also created "Short-Timer Calendars" to help the guys count down the days until they returned to The World. But often they just sat with the battle-worn troopers and talked. "You were his sister, his girlfriend, his mother, his friend," says Barbara Dorr Lilly. "Our job was to make him forget that tomorrow might not come for him."

Helicopter pilot Bob Lunde loved it when his crew drew Donut Dolly duty. "We always took the long way home," Lunde says, remembering the laughter—and perfume—that would suffuse his Huey. "It was a lot better than the smells we usually had in the aircraft."

'You might visit a unit you'd seen the week
before and half the guys were missing.
But you still had to smile'
Penni Evans (1970–71)

Though their encounters may have been fleeting, no Vietnam veteran will ever forget when, even in the darkest of places, a Donut Dolly brightened up their day.

"Smile, smile, smile. Sometimes you had to smile even when it was gruesome," Patty Wooldridge remembers. Most of the women say that even though they left the war, the war never fully left them. They were not eligible for counseling or other veteran benefits. Yet they are quick to point out that compared to the troops and the nursing corps, their experiences were easy. "We were visitors to the war," Holly Watts said. "They were its residents."

'It was the best thing
I ever did and I'd do it all over again'

Kathy Ormond (1968–69)

The Donut Dollies who went to Vietnam were the most forward-positioned American women to serve in a military support role to date. Several years later, they were cited as proof that women could indeed handle the emotional effects of the dangers experienced in frontline positions. Today, as many Donut Dollies are proud to point out, women are flying the helicopters, not just riding in them.

 

For more images of the "Donut Dollies" click here to visit our photo gallery.

Cheryl Fries is the producer and director of the documentary film A Touch of Home: The Vietnam War's Red Cross Girls. The DVD is available now at www.HistoryNetShop.com.


6 Responses to “Hello Dollies!”


  1. 1
    Dianna says:

    Great story!

  2. 2
    Joe Roberts says:

    Fayetteville NC is hosting a week long "Heroes Homcomong" for Vietnam Veterans Nov 2011. It seems both appropriate and patriotic if somehow these historic healers were a part of this event.

    Coming up on 20 yrs of active duty service, I've often wondered why more hasn't been done to recruit the efforts of Donuts Dollies and Vietnam Veterans as "healers" of our current Combat Wounded?

    MSG Joe Roberts

  3. 3
    Andy Hoder says:

    Cheryl Fries has done a masterful job of capturing the essence of the Red Cross girls in Vietnam. She deserves an academy award for her production. This documentary film gives those girls the honor and recognition they really deserve.

  4. 4
    Hardy Bryan says:

    I commanded a company and the Donut Dollies came to us once a week for about 1/2 hour. Trouble was that only the night shift troops were in the company area when they came, so they saw only about 10% of the men. I asked the girls if they could come for a longer time and they replied that they did not feel they were well received by so few men. But they agreed to come longer, so I secured extra ice cream, had the cooks serve up portions in cups, keep them frozen in mermite cans, and have them ready for me to pick up. Then hitched a trailer with the ice cream and cold drinks to my jeep, put the girls in back of the jeep, and off we went to the many operational ares of my unit. The troops loved it, appreciated the ice cream and seeing the girls. The watched their language and always got red faced when on of the Dollies asked the name of the dog they adopted and kept in the area (the names were usually not words for a proper young lady to hear!) If I could not make the weekly run, then the XO or 1st SGT filled in. The girls loved it and told me they really felt great at my unit and encouraged other units to do the same. In fact, I started dating one of the Dollies (Marcia), we got engaged, but never wed. I forget her last name, but she was in Vietnam in 1968-1969, and was from Minnesota. Anybody know her?Another Dollie sent me a watercolor she did of a beach in Vietnam and it is proudly displayed near the front door on my home. The Dollies made a big improvement in the morale of my troops, and I will be forever grateful to them and the Amercian Red Cross.

  5. 5
    John Worden says:

    I was in Vietnam from June 67 to June 68, around Cu Chi, Tay Ninh and Saigon, I love you people. The Dollies are the best women this country has to offer..Love you all John W.

  6. 6
    Ray Caryl says:

    For a personal story of Donut Dollies go to:

    http://www.catkillers.org

    On the left, click on Unit History
    Scroll down to 1967
    Click on CPT. WONDERFUL, THE DONUT DOLLY AND THE THREE LEGGED CAT

    ENJOY!



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