Thursday, June 6, marks the 75th anniversary of D-Day, the Allied invasion of Normandy, France that brought down the Third Reich. Approximately 160,000 troops landed on that heavily fortified 50-mile stretch of beach and 9,000 were wounded or died paving the way for soldiers like my 20-year-old father to fight the Battle of the Bulge and liberate Paris. This week’s column is dedicated to him, to all our servicemen and to those who served in a different way - a group of unsung “sheroes” you might not have heard of - the Donut Dollies.
The Great British Baking Show host Sue Perkins said, “In 1942 if you were a homesick American soldier on British soil, a service club was the place to be. Here serviceman could let their hair down, socialize and feel at home. And the key to success of the whole evening was the good old American donut.”
British World War II re-enactor Tori Bottomley said, “The idea started in the first world war. The Salvation Army decided to give the American soldiers a taste of home and boost their morale, so they decided to make them donuts. The idea was such a success that the American Red Cross made it central to their entertaining of the troops in the second world war.”
Service clubs were set up near army bases and American girls known as “Donut Dollies” were hired to entertain the troops and serve their favorite snack.
Bottomley said, “They flirted with the men, they chatted to them, they provided an ear to listen, and they earned this effective nickname.”
According to Perkins, the service clubs provided good, wholesome fun and the Donut Dollies had strict guidelines for behavior.
Bottomley said, “They always had to be happy. They always had to be well-groomed. They couldn’t have a lazy, no makeup day. They had to be intelligent and good looking. A lot of them were very well educated and some had degrees, but they had to be able to hold a conversation, and most of all, be charming.”
The Dollies and their donuts were such a hit with the troops, old Green Line buses were transformed into clubmobiles to reach more bases. They were a service club on wheels, run by the Dollies who “dispensed donuts by the truckload.” But neither the donuts nor the Dollies were to be limited by the coastline.
Perkins continued, “In June 1944, American forces were preparing to invade northern France, and alongside the tanks and armored cars, another vehicle was being prepared to cope with the war-torn terrain of continental Europe. Nearly 100 two-and-one-half ton troop carriers were converted into Clubmobiles and the Donut Dollies had to ready themselves to enter a war zone.”
British Clubmobile expert Mick Wilson said, “The hostesses were given instructions into how to keep the trucks running, maintenance in case they broke down. In the layout of the Clubmobile, there was a giant donut machine, so it was fresh, everything being served up. The donuts weren’t the supermarket donut you get nowadays. They were hand cut, thrown into a deep fat fryer. Sometimes they were a bit burnt and sometimes they were a bit undercooked. They weren’t always round. You were lucky if you got a hole in the middle.”
During World War II, the American Red Cross purchased enough flour to make 1.6 billion donuts and eventually served them at the rate of 400 per minute.
Perkins said, “But the GIs didn’t mind their donuts a bit rough and ready and the Clubmobile convoy advanced right across Europe until victory was secured May 7, 1945.”
But the story of the Donut Dollies doesn’t end there. In the tradition of the traveling Clubmobiles, they served troops in Korea and beginning in 1965, in Vietnam. While the food fare may have changed from donuts to cookies, the mission was the same. Donut Dollie Rachel Torrance was in Vietnam from November 1969-November 1970.
She said, “Our mission over there was to break the monotony of the war and to remind them of home. A lot of them just didn’t want to be there. It wasn’t what they had planned for their life. Morale could be up and down.”
Bob Babcock, First Lieutenant in the 4th Infantry Division said, “They had some of the craziest, silliest games that they brought with them, but it was so great for the morale to see an American woman. Remember we were out there, a bunch of guys looking for bad guys and it was a real shot in the arm when they would come out there.”
According to the American Red Cross, in the peak year of 1969 110 women, all college graduates, operated 17 Supplemental Recreational Activities Overseas (SRAO) units in Vietnam that reached 300,000 servicemen each month that year.
Perhaps that unselfish volunteer service that took these American women into harm’s way is best described by a former Donut Dollie who said, “My job as a Donut Dollie was to be as cheery and optimistic as I could. That’s what a Donut Dollie is. It’s a gal from home who came and cared.”
Connie Clements is a freelance reporter and award-winning columnist. She writes feature news articles on a weekly basis and an opinion column as the mood strikes her.