The Donut Dollies of Vietnam

During World War II numerous teams of three female Red Cross volunteers operated clubmobiles equipped with a kitchen area with a stove for heating water for coffee and a built-in donut-making machine. These clubmobiles traveled with the rear echelon units, but each day their teams ventured out to different operating areas to visit Soldiers, play Victrola records, pass out sundry items, and serve hot coffee and fresh-made donuts to the troops. 

Female Red Cross workers answered the call to duty again during the Korean War. In its early stages, they earned the endearing nickname, “Donut Dollies,” turning out up to 20,000 donuts a day for American Soldiers disembarking troop ships in Pusan.

The Donut Dollies were most visible to troops serving in Vietnam. Between February 1962 and March 1973, they logged over 2,000,000 miles by jeep, deuce-and-a-half, and helicopter, visiting combat troops at remote fire bases from An Khe to Yen Giang (there’s no “Z” in Vietnamese). And they didn’t pass out a single donut during this war. 

Jan Woods flying in a Huey over Vietnam.

Instead, usually traveling at least in pairs and dressed in their signature pale blue outfits, this time they brought smiles, songs, games, and a touch of back home to the guys who were in the bush counting the days down from 365. 

Over 600 Donut Dollies responded to the somewhat opaque Red Cross’s ads seeking “qualified young women who were willing to serve one year overseas.” They had to be at least 21, have a college education, and have that “girl next door” look. Among the understated requirements: “the job requires a capacity for hard work under less than ideal conditions.” 

After only two weeks of training in Washington, D.C. as Red Cross recreation workers, the women packed off for Vietnam where they set up recreation centers before the USO and Special Services arrived and wrote up and conducted recreation programs in the field for troops who couldn’t visit the centers. 

Jan Woods in Quan Loi,
Vietnam. (Photos courtesy of Jan Woods.)

They also visited hospitals to hand out activity books and spent time in evac hospitals with the wounded. As one Donut Dolly put it, “Our job was to smile and be bubbly for an entire year— no matter what the situation.” 

No one appreciated the presence of the Donut Dollies more than the troops on the remote firebases. Minutes spent talking about home or sports or music or wives and girlfriends with a fresh-faced American girl with a pony tail wearing a tinge of lipstick and a splash of perfume was a terrific morale boost. 

And the fact that these young women had the guts to brave incoming mortars, sniper and ground- to-air fire, and other wartime hardships and dangers to visit the firebases earned them the unarguable respect and admiration of the troops. And that’s exactly how Vietnam veterans remember the Red Cross Donut Dollies nearly forty years later— with unarguable appreciation, respect, and admiration.

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