By Gordon Williams
Millions of Americans were sent overseas in one or another of this country’s wars. And while most bore arms and wore battle dress, some of the most intrepid wore the baby blue of the American Red Cross. Instead of weapons, they carried coffee and donuts — serving them to soldiers in the most forward of front-line posts.
This year marks the 140th birthday of the Red Cross, and one of the most compelling stories from that long history involves “Donut Dollies” — young American women recruited to bring treats and good cheer to combat troops in World Wars 1 and 2, Korea and Vietnam.
Just to make this story even more timely, June 5th is National Donut Day — a day to reflect on what the Donut Dollies faced in fulfilling their mission. Eighty-six Red Cross volunteers, 52 of them women, died in World War 2.
So, who were the Donut Dollies, these young women who left home and safety to put themselves in harm’s way? Joyce Bottenberg — now of the King County Red Cross chapter in Seattle — has been a Red Cross employee and volunteer for decades. She is National Secretary of the American Red Cross Overseas Association (ARCOA) whose membership includes many Donut Dollies. These women, she says, “were chosen for their spunk, optimism, flexibility, know-how and craftiness.”
One such Dollie is Nancy Hewitt of Federal Way WA, who was freshly graduated from the University of Washington when she volunteered for the Red Cross in 1970. Her U.S. Army father had served two tours in Vietnam, but was home before Nancy traveled there. In Vietnam, she visited soldiers in the field and in hospitals. She survived being in a helicopter that was struck by gunfire. Looking back, she calls working in Vietnam a “once in a lifetime experience.”
Among her memories of Vietnam are singing Silent Night while military flares burst overhead and of being among the first civilians seen in months at an American firebase. She recalls the excitement on men’s faces playing a game she had brought. “They were so thankful when we served food in a mess line,” she says.
Another Dollie is Pat Prince Edmondson — a Red Cross volunteer since she was an 8th grader, and a Donut Dollie during the Korean War. Edmondson recalls arriving at a front-line battle station the day President Kennedy imposed a Naval blockade on Cuba. Fearful the North Koreans would respond by attacking U.S. positions, the Red Cross team was rushed to safety over nearly impassable roads, and confined to the rear echelon until danger of an imminent attack had passed.
Edmondson recalls how soldiers “found” generators to provide heat when temperatures fell to zero. Trying to stay clean with no hot water was challenging. Speaking of her days as a Donut Dollie, Edmondson says “It was truly a privilege to get to know so many intelligent, funny, creative, spirited, talented women.”
Kathy Huff lives in Kentucky now, but comes from the Seattle area. She has been active with the Red Cross for decades but first volunteered as a Donut Dollie in Vietnam. Her main function there, she says, was to “take the guys’ minds off the war.” Seeing young men in military hospitals was especially disturbing. “Seeing these guys who were my age, and what they had been through, was really challenging.”
Not all those who served the Red Cross overseas were Donut Dollies.
Joyce Bottenberg talks about Bea Jordan, a Red Cross nurse in World War 2 Europe. Jordan, who died a few years ago at 101, founded the Puget Sound ARCOA group. One of Jordan’s wartime memories was dragging her footlocker ashore at Omaha Beach just a week after the D-Day landing in France in 1944.
A Red Cross wartime volunteer who went on to great fame was Walt Disney, who dropped out of high school at 16 to become a Red Cross ambulance driver in France in World War 1.
You’ll find more about Donut Dollies at the ARCOA website at arcoa.org/news. From 1953 on, the program was known as Supplemental Recreation Activities Overseas (SRAO); a search at srao.com will unearth still more.
There is a whole shelf of books written about the Donut Dollies. Do a search for Donut Dollies on Amazon.com and you will find not only non-fiction accounts, but a novel about Donut Dollies in World War 2. A 2019 film titled Donut Dollies: A Documentary follows the return to Vietnam of two Red Cross volunteers who served there during wartime.
There are fascinating stories aplenty in the 140-year history of the Red Cross — responses to disasters the world over. But the story of the Donut Dollies and their service on wartime battlefields is certainly among the most compelling.