Red Cross volunteer relives what it was like in Vietnam as a Donut Dollie


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Joining the Red Cross recreation team would get Nancy Smoyer to Vietnam. At the time, only being a journalist would get women as far into Vietnam. So in 1967 that’s exactly what she did.

Smoyer became a Donut Dollie.

A term leftover from World War II, the Donut Dollies were morale boosters. And they used games to do it. Sent to combat zones to make sure American troops had activities to distract them from the war. Something to take their mind of the war.

Smoyer, a Princeton, New Jersey, native, had always had a desire to travel, and an interest in the war in Vietnam.

“When I graduated from college in 1965, I was traveling around the world,” said Smoyer. “Everywhere I went I heard things about our (the United States) involvement in Vietnam and I wanted to do what I could to help. So I looked into ways to go to Vietnam.”

For one year, Smoyer traveled around combat zones, working with other Red Cross recreation workers to boost the morale of enlisted men. The teams went to firebases and landing zones, making up games for the men to play. (Think of it as a cross between a TV program and Monopoly.)

The troops gave these games their all. A minute to be distracted from the suffering and horrors of war. One minute to laugh. To forget.

“It was our mission, our job, what we were sent to Vietnam to do,” said Smoyer. But they didn’t just play games. They listened. Listened to their stories, their fears, their hopes.

They talked. Talked about what was happening, how it was affecting them. Those moments meant more than any game ever could. They were making a difference.

The Red Cross Supplemental Recreational Activities Overseas team, Donut Dollies, wore blue seersucker dresses. This image was in sharp contrast to the flak vests, helmets and weapons the men wore.

Smoyer saw a lot of Vietnam. She was in Saigon, Da Nang, An Khê and Củ Chi. She also saw a lot of pain and heartbreak.

“The men we were entertaining were like our brothers,” said Smoyer. “The war was never far away.”

That heartbreak would continue when she got back from her time in Vietnam.

Smoyer’s brother, Bill, enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps and was a Second Lieutenant. He arrived in Vietnam in June 1968, where he served with Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marines, 1st Marine Division. Three weeks later, he was killed in action near An Hoa. He was 22 years old.

Back home in Princeton, the Smoyer family grieved. Support was hard to come by.

“Understandably it was very difficult for my parents,” said Smoyer.

Nancy Smoyer with Vietnam Veterans Michael Coale and Joe Leone at the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Foundation. Photos by Michael McMahon

Nancy Smoyer with Vietnam Veterans Michael Coale and Joe Leone at the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial Foundation. Photos by Michael McMahon

When the New Jersey Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial opened in 1995, Smoyer’s parents found solace. Bill’s name is engraved on the wall.

“The Memorial gave validation and understanding to those suffering,” she said. “The Memorial and Foundation focused on the family as well as the Veterans and the entire community around the war.”

Smoyer eventually moved to Alaska in 1972, where she worked for the University of Alaska Fairbanks. She is retired from working as a counselor at a Veteran’s center in Fairbanks.

Vietnam was never far from Nancy’s mind, so when the Vietnam Veterans Memorial was built in Washington, D.C. she began to volunteer there. She still volunteers to this day.

When Nancy comes back east, she spends time at the Wall in D.C., helping visitors make rubbings of names on the wall, telling the story of Vietnam, and most importantly allowing Veterans and families a chance to talk about their experiences and the stories of the men and women on the wall.

“It’s a place where I can feel comfortable with my Vietnam experiences,” said Nancy. “Where people and Veterans know they don’t have to explain things, because I was there. I get it. There’s such a bond there.”

Smoyer went back to Vietnam in 1993 with the Veterans Vietnam Restoration Project and found an unknown land from the one she knew. She now has two Vietnams— the one in her memory and the one that exists today.


Last Patrol Stephanie EichmeyerStephanie Eichmeyer is a former journalist turned writer and public relations specialist. Her background includes non-profit work in health care and fundraising, as well as event planning, media and community relations and internal and external communications.

 

 

 

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Comments

  1. Walter L. Wagner    

    I want to commend Mr. Bennie Williams, Chief of the Prosthetics Department at the Washington VA Hospital in the District of Columbia. Mr. Williams and his staff really expedited my request for a different power wheelchair lift. My wife, Sandy, is 76 years old and had to use unsafe portable ramps to get my wheelchair in and out of our vehicle. Mr. Williams took it upon himself to make certain our new lift was properly installed in time to be available to us on an important trip that was already scheduled within a few days of my request. He and his staff really came through for us. Outstanding service for this old veteran!

  2. Jim Dunn    

    Thank you Stephaine for the story about Nancy. It helped remind me of one of the most pleasant moments I spent in Viet Nam. We were only a few miles south of the DMZ at Camp Evans.We could not leave the camp so there were few distractions. Ten or eleven of us got to spend about an hour with a Donut Dollie. She was a quite lovely young girl poised and confident surrounded by a bunch of routy soldiers.She made me think of my little sister. I remember thinking how sad it was that this innocent girl was exposed to this terrible war and I wanted to protect her.. I don’t remember her first name or which silly childhood games we played but I do remember her pretty smile and how wonderful it was to to be silly with her and my friends for a brief moment.
    Nancy,
    Thank you so much Donut Dollie! I realize now you were tougher than i was and more brave than any soldier i ever knew.

  3. William Karp    

    I was a medic assigned for the last 4 months to a small outpost near Nui Loc Son, it was me and a mortar team with the popular forces and a few ARVNs on a tiny hill in a hamlet designated as a no fire zone(for the US military) Suddenly one day a chopper from our fire support hill came in and there was a Donut Dolly aboard, Wow blew our mind! They were fired upon during landing but not hit, it was so nice to see an American woman, could not enjoy the visit though at the time worried about getting her out of there unharmed, but not as I think back that was one brave woman. Thanks for caring……

  4. Leon Suchorski    

    WE had our choices, to walk for a mile and a half around the wire, or to go straight through the barb wire and concertina, in a few seconds. We went straight through so we could see them, it was heaven. at DaNang.

  5. David White    

    I don’t think you would want to hear what I have to think about the Red Cross girls in Pleiku

  6. Steven Good    

    Hey Donut Dollies, you were the best. I served in the central highlands 70-71 on fire bases. Oh, my just to see an American woman gave reason and hope to get back home and respite from the insanity going on around you. Watching the Dollies get off the choppers took your breath away. Thanks for your courage and devotion to America.

  7. Gerald Wayne Kelly    

    I was a Huey pilot with the 57th Assault Helicopter Co from January 1970 to January 1971 in the central highlands in and around Kontum, An Khe and Pleiku. It was so great to see an American Lady in that God forsaken place where their was so much death and pain. It felt like there was some hope of going home. Thank you so much for being there for us.

  8. desert    

    I was on a carrier, we were in the south china sea sending planes into Vietnam in 1959…I received an armed forces expeditionary medal for my time there….but….my time was nothing compared to this lady! She should receive the armed forces expeditionary medal at the very least imho!!

  9. Anthony Maida    

    Thank you for your unwavering support for us in a time when helping us was seen as not cool.
    I am a Red Cross Volunteer and have been deployed many times in disaster services as an ERV driver. I was a Marine grunt serving with Lima company 3rd battalion 26th Marines.
    If you were ever at Freedom Hill I may have spoken to you when we came in off of an operation.
    Again thank you, you ladies brought a touch of home to 20 year old kid.

Comments are closed.