a time when many young men were burning draft cards and fleeing to
Canada, a group of young women answered the call by joining the Red
Cross Supplemental Recreation Activities Overseas (SRAO) program,
volunteering for duty in Vietnam. The story of these “Donut Dollies” -
an affectionate term used by American servicemen in England during World
War II for the Red Cross volunteers who served them coffee and pastries
- remains largely unknown.
Mary Young Hines (but call her Larry)
was a college senior when she heard about the program. "I'd been
thinking about doing some volunteer work and thought the Red Cross would
be a good way to do it," she remembers. Penni Evans, a political
science major, was planning to enter a foreign service and felt the
program would help her prepare. Rene Johnson wanted to join the Air
Force but opted for the SRAO when she found she wouldn't be allowed to
go to Vietnam. None of them could foresee how much their experiences
would change their lives.
A challenging start
requirements were stringent, especially for an all-volunteer program.
Only college-educated women between the ages of 22 and 28 were
considered, and background checks were so thorough that program
officials even contacted Hines' second-grade teacher. There was a strict
dress code while on duty: blue twill dresses or culottes, with no
embellishments allowed except the Red Cross insignia and unit patch, and
only blue tennis shoes or black leather loafers. Training consisted of
lessons on Red Cross history, military rank, and information on what
their duties would be once in-country.
Hines and 17 other Donut
Dollies departed for Vietnam in July 1968, on a plane with 220 male
soldiers. The captain warned them the descent into Saigon would be steep
to avoid ground fire, but "it felt like we were going straight down,"
says Hines. "As we were taxiing, I remember seeing huge burned-out hulks
of C-130s, holes in the runway, and burned-out buildings. When the door
opened and we walked down the steps into Vietnam, I was just struck by
the heat, the smell - just the whole intensity was like nothing I'd ever
felt in my life."
After dispersing to their first assignments,
the women soon fell into a rhythm. The larger bases such as Cam Ranh and
Da Nang had recreation centers that became their bases of operation.
"If you were in a center, you'd make coffee or Kool-Aid, play games, and
talk to the guys," says Johnson. The point was to provide a small slice
of normality, or what passed for it in a war zone, and the Dollies
found their services much in demand.
Flying the unfriendly skies
relative calm of the recreation centers was in marked contrast to life
in the field, where the Dollies spent many 12-to-16-hour days. "Most
mornings, I'd get on a helicopter and fly out to one firebase after
another," Johnson says. Evans notes that "before we could visit a base,
the commanders had to request that we come and talk to their guys. The
really good officers would know how much that meant to the soldiers and
would make sure we came and visited their units."
didn't arrive empty-handed: They invented traveling game shows they
could pack into cases and bring with them into the field to keep
soldiers engaged. "We'd pick a theme that had universal appeal, like
state capitals or rock 'n' roll," says Hines. "We'd divide the men into
teams, and they'd play for prizes - candy, film, or what have you. We'd
also give out short-timer calendars to those who had less than a hundred
days left in their tours."
The Dollies traveled to the field on
the same helicopters that picked up the dead and wounded, giving them a
stark jolt of reality on some mornings. Hines remembers standing at a
respectful distance before dawn while crews cleaned mud, blood, and
vomit out of their aircraft so the women could board. Often there were
no seats, so they perched on whatever cargo was being shipped that day.
On one flight, Hines felt a jolt and looked down to see a quarter-sized
hole just inches from her leg. The round punched its way through the
ceiling, but the pilot managed to land safely.
Above and beyond
not part of their official duties, many Dollies visited field hospitals
during their off hours - a task that still haunts Hines. "We'd sit and
read to the guys or just talk," she says. "The nurses would tell us
which beds we needed to visit first, because those were the sickest ones
or the most severely wounded. We'd help a soldier write a letter to his
mother, and the unspoken monster in the room was that it could be the
last one she'd ever get. It's quite a thing for a 22-year-old English
major to provide that kind of support to soldiers half a world away from
their families. But we took it on voluntarily because we knew how
important it was."
Like many military veterans, the Dollies'
return to the U.S. wasn't always easy, because anyone who'd served,
combatant or not, often was looked upon with derision. Johnson returned
to Vietnam for a second tour, while Evans flew to Europe and backpacked
for six months. Hines endured her share of verbal abuse but also began
to hear from veterans who remembered the Dollies with great fondness. At
a recent public speaking engagement, she was approached by a
well-dressed older man who wanted to show her something. He reached into
his suit pocket and produced a fragile, wrinkled piece of paper - his
short-timer calendar from 47 years before. "That's when I started
crying," Hines says.