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An American Red Cross Girl's War in Vietnam
By Joann Puffer Kotcher
University of North Texas Press Copyright © 2011 Joann Puffer Kotcher
All rights reserved.
On My Way to the War
During the Civil War neighbors would load up a wagon with quilts, food, and any other supplies they could spare for the soldiers. Sometimes a young, unmarried woman went. Someone, maybe a grandmother, would risk her life to drive the wagon as close to the fighting as she dared. The young woman would stay to help in the hospital. The wagon would return with wounded to be cared for at home.
The Donut Dollies were part of that tradition. Clarissa Harlowe Barton, or Clara Barton, was one of those women. When she was 60 years old she founded the American Red Cross on that legacy of volunteer service. She ran the charity for over 20 years until she retired in 1904 at the age of 83.
In World War I my grandmother's sister was a Red Cross nurse in France. Her diary records that she attended a dance at a Red Cross Center. In 1917 the Red Cross started canteens where 55,000 volunteers served food and snacks to servicemen around the world. In 1918 the Red Cross began hospital recreation in the United States. The ladies wore gray dresses and veils. Patients called them "The Gray Ladies." Almost 24,000 Red Cross nurses served the military. By war's end, nearly one-third of the US population was either a donor or volunteer. The Red Cross suffered 400 killed; of these, 330 were women.
During WW II the Red Cross Nursing Service recruited 212,000 nurses for the Army and for civilian service, where there was a shortage of doctors. Of these, 71,000 made up over 90 percent of all the nurses who served the military during the war, at home and abroad. The Red Cross also ran recreation facilities around the world, employing at its peak 5,000 workers and approximately 140,000 volunteers.
The Red Cross introduced Clubmobiles in Great Britain in 1942 and later deployed some to the continent. These were converted pickup trucks and single-deck buses operated by three American Red Cross women and a local driver. They were equipped for making and serving donuts and coffee and other small items. The girls passed out donuts to long lines of soldiers. The men called the girls "Donut Dollies." "The women staffing them [Clubmobiles] were allowed to move through combat areas with more freedom then many soldiers or journalists, as they brought coffee and doughnuts right up to the GIs in camps and sometimes in foxholes.... But most of the Red Cross women who died overseas in World War II were killed in the course of this dangerous kind of work." "Red Cross girls often reported that every moment of their work and life at war seemed infused with meaning and depth that belied the auxiliary, or sometimes even trivial, surface appearance of the duties they performed." In wartime service 52 Red Cross women and 34 men lost their lives.
Everything the soldiers received was free or at cost. The Allies required their soldiers to pay for everything, and pressured the United States to charge. The uproar at home was so great that the Red Cross petitioned the government to let them stop. Now, the Red Cross gives out everything free or at cost.
During the Korean War two Red Cross men lost their lives. Two months after the Cease Fire in 1952, at the request of the military, the Red Cross set up Clubmobiles for isolated areas in Korea. All Donut Dollies were US citizens, single, female, college graduates between 21 and 25, and were screened in Washington D.C. I volunteered for that program and arrived in Korea in 1964. Korean bakers made our donuts at night on the Army installations, ready for us in the morning. We scheduled weekly visits to military units where we passed out donuts and gave one-hour recreation programs of games and stories in the mess halls. Our job was to remind the soldiers of home. We represented their sisters or the girl next door. We also visited hospitals. The Clubmobile program in Korea ended in 1973; 899 women had served. I finished 14 months in Korea in October 1965, had about six months of rest in the United States, and then shipped to Vietnam.
How did I get into the Red Cross and volunteer to go to Vietnam? I always had a sense of adventure. When I was little our tablecloth had pictures of airplanes with big teeth. My mother said, "Those are the Flying Tigers, heroes who fought in China on the other side of the world." I wanted to see China. My father was away working in a war factory, and I lived on a farm with my mother, Lela Puffer, and two sisters, Phyllis two years older, and Karen 18 months younger.
The Korean War started when I was nine. The war became one day old, two days old, a week old, and then, like World War II, it became part of our lives. During summers and vacations my family visited every state except Rhode Island and North Dakota. We followed the St. Lawrence Seaway to Nova Scotia and saw the forts at Montreal and Quebec City. Guides in period uniforms told about the battles between the United States and Canada. Later I learned that a Puffer was in those battles.
In 1961 I went to the University of Michigan, 20,000 students, eight men to every woman. I was a Math major, which impressed everyone. Both Phyllis and Karen went on to graduate school. They weren't going to be one-degree women. Phyllis joined the Women's Army Corps (WACs) after graduation. I was the maverick. I didn't like school. I wanted to travel.
The three of us girls were active in church youth groups. My sisters became less active during college, but I continued. The pastors emphasized pacifism. "For the price of one airplane, we could fund muchneeded social programs. We should protest war. It takes two to fight. If we refuse to fight, we will have peace." Nobody argued the other side, and I became a committed pacifist.
During August of 1962, after my junior year, I went on a three-week Peace Seminar in Berlin on a church scholarship. Students from all over Europe attended the seminar. The first anniversary of the Berlin Wall came around. We learned that one year before, shortly after midnight on Sunday, August 13, 1961, armed East German soldiers began to construct the Berlin Wall. The people tore down that wall 28 years later, on November 9, 1989. On that first anniversary of the wall, while everyone else went to a protest rally, I went to East Berlin alone early in the morning to Communist headquarters. I wanted to find out what Communists were really like. I talked to them for a little while and decided they were screwy. Afterwards, on that Monday, at noon, I walked through deserted streets, crossed to the West at the American Check Point Charlie, and re-joined my group. The West teemed with crowds of noisy protesters.
Later that afternoon, someone asked me, "The East is full of people protesting the Wall, too, isn't it?"
I answered, "No. They don't have that right."
After I graduated in 1963 with a degree in mathematics, I visited my sister, Phyllis, a WAC lieutenant, at Fort McClellan, Alabama. She asked, "Why don't you get a job?"
I found that in 1963 a woman newly graduated from college, could be a waitress, a telephone operator, or a teacher. Our opportunities were limited. But I discovered another job, one more exciting. My sister's roommate had a brass plaque with a striking, enameled red cross. She told me, "It was a going away gift from a job I had in Korea before I joined the Army." I had been writing to a pen pal in Korea since tenth grade, and still do. I didn't care what the job was, just that somebody might pay me to go someplace exciting. The Red Cross invited me to Atlanta for a whole day of interviews, and hired me for a recreation program in Korea. I stored my belongings in my parents' attic, sold my car, wrote a last will, and flew to Washington, D.C. in July 1964.
I trained for two weeks with 15 new college graduate girls. We heard lectures on the history of the Red Cross, its organization, its accomplishments, and projects. Our job was called "able-bodied recreation." We served military people stationed in isolated areas. The Red Cross would not assign us to work in hospitals or with wounded, though we were to visit them when we were able. Some of our recreation activities could be used with patients, but we must never sit on the beds. I was too busy trying to remember everything to think to ask why. Trainers never told us how to do our jobs or how to write an able- bodied recreation program. They instructed us to be creative, but not to humiliate anyone: "If you tell the men to stand on their heads for an hour, they'll do it. Don't make them look foolish." Some of the games we made up may have been simple, but they reminded the men of home and gave them a chance to talk to an American girl. That was what the soldiers looked forward to.
Many of the rules we had to follow were for our safety. We had to know where the dangers were in our new environment. Other rules were preventative, to keep the men from misinterpreting why we were there, and what we were doing, to set the ground rules for our recreation programs. We had to know what the misunderstandings might be and how to minimize them. The Red Cross said they would move us often to keep us fresh. That worked. Every time romance began to bloom, I got transferred. Most of my dates were like going out with my brother. I never knew a man long enough to get more than just acquainted. I never thought that was a coincidence. We had training lectures on Korea, its history, geography, climate, and customs, and about military courtesy. Trainers emphasized that we represented America to everybody. I felt the burden and remembered it. We learned how to behave as the only western women among thousands of men: "Don't let anyone push you around. One girl was at a party. She felt someone pinch her on the behind. She turned around and drew back her arm to slap the perpetrator. She was looking at a star. A general had pinched her. Later she asked her supervisor, 'What should I have done?'
"The supervisor answered, 'Follow through.'" At that time in 1964, and especially a few years earlier, men would whistle at or pat a pretty girl. Depending on the circumstances, girls took it as a compliment or an insult. No one considered it particularly polite, but it was accepted. I never got that kind of treatment from the people I knew, but where we were going, we had to be able to handle all situations. A Donut Dolly in World War II reported, "En route to the town, we passed a crowded compound of Nazi prisoners. We disdainfully ignored their cat-calls and wolf whistles."
An iron rule that I saw play out later, concerned romance. If any of us got married, we would be sent home. Another caution was, if you fall in love and want to get married, don't do it overseas. Wait until you get home. The man might look perfect to you over there, but when you get home he could look entirely different. Trainers warned us to be cautious about whom we dated. We would enjoy the married men because they were more at ease with women, knew more about what women liked, and missed the company of women more than single men did. Therefore, we shouldn't spend too much time with married men. It could be dangerous. At best, it would be a waste of time. The trainer explained a phenomenon called the S.S.R., State Side Reject, an unattractive girl who can't get a date State Side, so she goes overseas where the men are so desperate she can be popular. I shuddered, but I got the point.
We learned that we were civilian non-combatants. We could not be armed and we could not fire a weapon. The men would be proud of their firearms and would want to show them to us. We might be invited to pose for pictures with arms and artillery pieces. We could not pose holding weapons, but we could pose beside an artillery piece. Sometimes the men invited the girls to pull the lanyard to fire an artillery piece; we could not. It would violate our non-combatant status. I thought, That's easy. I'm a pacifist. Unarmed, we were vulnerable. It was our responsibility to stay out of danger. Otherwise, the men would concentrate on protecting us and not on doing their job. We must not let that happen. I thought, That's fine with me.
We met the important people in the Red Cross, and toured all the major sights in Washington, D.C. We got dog tags and shots at the Pentagon, and received uniforms that were hand tailored. We looked sharp. Rules for wearing the uniform were flexible. We wore it when we were on duty or traveling. Sometimes we got instructions to wear the dress uniform instead of the work uniform, with either high heeled shoes or flats instead of loafers. Officially, we never went off duty, but outside working hours we usually wore civilian clothes. Beyond that, each unit made its own decisions. In training we learned that we would have officer status so we wouldn't have to sleep in the soldiers' barracks; that idea was a shocker. We could eat in any mess hall; and we would have priority for transportation because we had to travel to work.
Young women in isolated areas like Korea and Vietnam raised questions about our behavior, so the rules helped us preserve our image. We assumed a woman's virtue in spite of the gossip dribbling from men's locker rooms. When I was in college, girls snickered about "the Pill." Many looked at it not as women's freedom, but as a license for sex. It was not legal in some states, especially for unmarried women. The early and mid- 1960s held on to some of the strict values of the previous generation.
The Red Cross demanded that our conduct be above reproach, and to appear to be above reproach. That was for our safety and to prevent misunderstanding. As paid national staff of the American Red Cross, our salary was about the same as that of a first- year teacher. The previous year, as a Math teacher, I received $3,600, or about $18,000 in today's money. The Red Cross strongly prohibited us from accepting any other money for anything. Our payment was in knowing we were doing something worthwhile for the soldiers. The rules said we must never be alone with a man. Moreover, we must never give the appearance that we were alone with a man. As my father had taught me in second grade, we traveled with another girl. We knew that people watched everything we did and knew everything we did. We "lived in a goldfish bowl," and we acted accordingly. We also knew that people would make up rumors about us, no matter how proper we were. We all felt responsible for the reputation of the program. Of all the girls I served with in Korea or Vietnam, I never knew one, or even heard of one, who behaved improperly. Virtuous girls went overseas, and virtuous girls came back. That's the kind of girls the Red Cross recruited.
Our honor was probably more protected than anything in Vietnam. Trainers told us that each man would want to make advances. He knew he couldn't, so he would make sure no other man did. We found it was true. Once in Vietnam, one of the girls, Lori, and I visited an isolated radio relay station. The sergeant sat beside us in the mess hall and scrutinized everything. One man said "Damn." The sergeant exploded. "Watch your mouth. Jesus Christ, there's ladies present!" The men made it their top priority to protect us, even above their own safety. In Korea I overheard one man say, "Those girls could get married right this minute to anyone here, if they wanted to."
Hugh Hefner had just opened the first Playboy club. Girls in scant bunny costumes waited tables. In 1966 it would not be unusual for a man to pat or pinch a waitress. Hefner's new rule was customers could "Look, but don't touch." It was a unique idea, but the Red Cross had long conveyed that message. We girls made the men understand. If a man wanted sex, he could buy it. Korean and Vietnamese prostitutes were everywhere. We Donut Dollies didn't use sex to be popular. We knew that when men were interested in us, it was because we had sisterly qualities they appreciated.
* * *
My class of 15 girls flew to Korea on July 25, 1964, with 190 soldiers. We arrived at Kimpo ("Kim poe") Airport for a week of training in Seoul (pronounced "Sole"). On my first free time on July 31 I went to visit Cho Dong Song for the first time. She had been my pen pal for eight years. Her friendship would become priceless. She would show me the popular and hidden Korea. Dong Song would introduce me to the foods, the customs, and the private lives of a Korean family. Getting to see her, though, wasn't easy. It was a cultural adventure. Traveling by taxi with a driver who didn't speak English, I didn't know where I was or what I would find. That evening my ancient, tiny vehicle crept along a muddy, one- lane alley between tile-roofed, walled houses.
Excerpted from Donut Dolly by Joann Puffer Kotcher. Copyright © 2011 Joann Puffer Kotcher. Excerpted by permission of University of North Texas Press.
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