They were formally called Supplemental Activities Overseas volunteers, but they were usually known to the troops as Red Cross girls or Donut Dollies. My guess is that the name Donut Dollies is a holdover from earlier wars when Red Cross volunteers provided coffee and doughnuts to servicemen passing through train stations.
The whole idea seems a little quaint, if not bizarre. The Donut Dollies were supposed to boost morale by going wherever the troops were, gathering a few together and … talking, singing songs and playing games.
For some reason, it worked.
I encountered Donut Dollies at least three times during my year in Vietnam; once at Freedom Hill in Danang and two or three times at CACO 2-7 headquarters beside Highway 1 a few miles south of Danang. Our tactical radio would crackle at CAP 2-7-2 and we would be told to send two men to HQ to meet with the Red Cross girls.
Some Marines refused to have anything to do with the Donut Dollies. They thought it was a cruel tease to gather a room full of horny Marines and send in two sweet-smelling, round-eye girls for an hour to CHAT AND PLAY GAMES!
I felt differently. I was 18 when I went to Vietnam. The Donut Dollies were all 21 or older, so there was never any possibility of any romantic connection. The best I could hope for was a brief older sister type of interaction. And that was fine with me. In my opinion, it beat the crap out of another boring day writing letters, reading or playing cards in the company of a dozen stinky young Marines.
So I was always ready when it was my turn to hitchhike to CACO HQ to meet the Donut Dollies. I don’t remember any details about my first Donut Dolly experience, but I think that was the time I met Marsha R. from Neodesha (knee-oh’-duh-shay), Kan.
The population of my home state is so small that I met very few Kansans in the Marines. So it was a treat to find that one of the Donut Dollies was from a small town not far from my own small hometown.
The details of another Donut Dolly experience were fixed in my mind for reasons you’ll understand when you read what follows.
First, either the Donut Dollies were later than expected that day or the Marines were called to HQ early. Whatever the reason, we had to wait about an hour before they arrived. Since it was a blazing hot day, a dozen of us gathered in one end of the communications bunker to wait out of the sun. And every man promptly fell asleep, sprawled on the floor or leaning against the sandbagged walls.
When the Donut Dollies arrived, the sound of their voices woke me so I was watching when the first girl was ushered into the unlit bunker. She came in from the bright sunshine and, as her eyes adjusted, found herself in what appeared to be a room full of dead bodies. I’m sure the smell of unwashed bodies and filthy clothes added to the effect. She gasped, her hands flew to her face and her eyes grew as wide as saucers before she fled back into the sunshine. It took a few minutes for me to wake the others and for us to show her we had only been sleeping. But she still looked shaken.
After the girls had completed their program I recall standing and talking with one of them for a couple of minutes. She said she was beginning to wonder if their efforts did any good. I told her that in the long periods between Red Cross programs I sometimes had the feeling that my mind was slowly going blank. Or at least that my mind contained nothing but the endless small details of life in the bush. I assured her sincerely that I enjoyed the programs and looked forward to them.
And there was a final important incident involving Donut Dollies.
After giving a program, two Donut Dollies were chatting with a dozen Marines in the CACO 2-7 “club,” which was a dusty SEAhut with a plywood bar and a balky refrigerator. Without warning a powerful explosion was heard outside. Within seconds most of the Marines had grabbed their weapons and vanished out the door at a run. Three of us remained in the club with the terrified Red Cross girls.
I was crouched in the door with my back against the frame, my M-16 locked and loaded and trained outboard. Another Marine shouted that we should move the girls to the command and communications bunker. So while I provided cover the other Marines led the girls at a run to the heavily sandbagged bunker. I followed walking backwards, sweeping the muzzle of my rifle in short arcs and looking for a target.
We soon learned that the explosion happened because a Vietnamese soldier had been fooling around with a grenade. For some reason he pulled the pin and, unable to think of a better idea, dropped it near the back wall of the CACO 2-7 club. Nobody was hurt, but everybody had a good scare.
After that it was deemed too dangerous for the Donut Dollies to come to CACO 2-7.
I ran into Marsha R. once more at the Freedom Hill Marine base in Danang. We talked briefly and exchanged names. Before that she simply called me “Kansas.” She went home soon afterwards and took the trouble to telephone my mother to say that she had met me in Vietnam and that I was okay. We are all grateful she made that extra effort to reassure my family.
Years later I tracked down Marsha R., by then a woman with three kids, and we talked by phone for nearly an hour.