Standing steps away from the Vietnam Memorial Wall on Veterans Day, Holley Watts recalled the naiveté that she bought with her to the front lines of the Vietnam War.
“I remember flying in and thinking, ‘Oh this is nice and exciting. Look at the flashes in the horizon,’ until later you realize behind those flashes are bombs and people are dying,” Watts said.
It was during the Vietnam War, with the lives of young soldiers hanging on every stray bullet, that Watts and other young women brought brief relief to troops millions of miles from home and uncertain about their future. Dressed in powder blue uniforms, the women were often armed with no more than a simple whiff of perfume. They were known as the Donut Dollies of the Vietnam War.
Little is known about the Donut Dollies, a group of 627 young women recruited by the Red Cross to boost troop morale and organize recreational activities. In 1966, Watts was one of the recent college graduates who volunteered to serve during a time when flower children and activists were protesting the war.
“I finished a degree in psychology, and I wasn’t interested at that time in getting my master’s or Ph.D.,” Watts said. Watts found out about the program through a brochure that had the phrase “spend a unique year of your life.” She soon started her two-week training at the Red Cross national headquarters in Washington. Donut Dollies had the unique job of multitasking that included creating a diversion for the men, organizing entertainment, making hospital visits and building troupe morale. This touch of home was brought through serving coffee, Kool-Aid and doughnuts. They also wrote, typed and mailed letters for the soldiers. They recorded messages on small reel-to-reel tapes as well, and sent them out to eager family and friends.
Watts recalled a story of how a simple whiff of her perfume gave a wounded soldier an aroma of home.
“A pilot was temporary blinded by a phosphorous flare, we were in a hospital and I walked up to him and simply waved my wrist under his nose and he then said: ‘Where are you? You’re American; aren’t you?’ ” Watts recalled.
Watts was stationed in Da Nang and Chu Lai, Vietnam, for one year and worked 12 to 14 hours a day. About 627 Dollies served yearlong tours in Vietnam. With 27 units, the last Dollies left Bien Hoa, a city in Dong Nai province, Vietnam, in 1972.
The Red Cross implemented the idea of Donut Dollies, who were originally referred to as Red Cross recreation workers. The GIs in Korea gave the Red Cross recreation workers the nickname “Donut Dolly.” These women could make up to 20,000 donuts a day when the troops’ ships came in. The Dollies in Vietnam didn’t just serve donuts, but provided entertainment and other services to the soldiers.
The Donut Dollies were meant to be a supplemental recreation program that started during World War II at the request of the Secretary of War. Gen. Douglas MacArthur asked the Red Cross center in Korea to continue this same program. When the Dollies returned home from Vietnam, they didn’t receive a warm welcome. They faced angry Americans who did not believe in, and actively protested, the war. No one greeted the troops when they came home or thanked them for their service. No one cared about the troops or their disabilities, and the Donut Dollies were treated with the same disrespect. But Watts found hope in this storm of hate, and tears came to her eyes as she recalled the kindness of a taxi driver.
“War is not romantic,” she said. “I was sitting in the back of the car looking out of the window and thinking, “Cool, everything is so green and so clean.’ The guy said ‘Lady where have you been?’ And I said ‘Vietnam.’
‘He then suddenly turned the car around, shifted on the column and looked at me. I thought he was going to throw me out of the car, but he said ‘Welcome home’ and did not charge me for the ride. It was not what I expected.”
Other than a documentary from Arrowhead Films titled “A Touch of Home: The Vietnam War’s Red Cross Girls,” the stories of these women and how they served their country and supported their troops is barely recognized in history. Just as the men, they were forever changed by the war. But unlike many men, these women willingly volunteered to put their lives on the line.
For Watts, this was an experience she would gladly do over again but would never encourage her daughter to do. When asked why, she simply said: “I left Vietnam, but truth be told Vietnam hasn’t left me.”