The powder blue dresses still stand out in the Polaroid photos, even as the colors that appeared in a matter of minutes nearly 50 years ago continue to slowly fade.
Even then, the dresses were a pale blue. This isn’t just the work of time. And set against the greens and browns of Vietnam — the colors of jungle and dirt, of military equipment and fatigues — you better believe those pale blue dresses made an impression. Especially when they were worn by a smiling American woman hopping out of a helicopter at some remote base.
“We would drop down, unannounced,” Margie Yarborough said. “And when we jumped out of the helicopter …”
Her eyes go wide. Her jaw drops. She laughs, recalling that recurring initial reaction to the arrival of Donut Dollies.
I had never heard of the Donut Dollies until our local public television station, WJCT, held events in conjunction with Ken Burns’ latest documentary, “The Vietnam War.”
At least two of the Vietnam-era Donut Dollies — Yarborough and Judy Stevens — ended up settling in Jacksonville. I met them last week.
But before we get to their stories, first a bit of background: From 1965 until 1972, a total of 627 American women — nearly all in the early 20s, recent college graduates, single — volunteered to go to Vietnam with the Red Cross as part of what was officially known as the Supplemental Recreational Activities Overseas program. Unofficially, they were Donut Dollies. And they did not serve doughnuts.
This goes back to World War II, when the Red Cross sent women overseas to help boost the morale of the troops. Three-women teams traveled in Clubmobiles — remodeled London buses outfitted with a doughnut-making machine, a stove for heating water and a Victrola for playing phonographs over loudspeakers.
The program was revived during the Korean War, minus the Clubmobiles. When ships came to ports, the women led activities and made donuts. Lots of donuts. According to some stories, they could make as many as 20,000 in a day – leading GIs to come up with the nickname.
By Vietnam, the donuts were gone — the Donut Dollies served a lot of Kool-Aid — but the nickname and the goal remained the same. Do the impossible. Bring a “touch of home” to Vietnam and make the troops forget about the war.
For Stevens, home was Michigan. She grew up in Kalamazoo and went to Michigan State. After college, she spent about 18 months working. Many of her male friends were being drafted. She eventually decided she wanted to support the troops and find out firsthand what was happening in Vietnam.
She arrived as the Tet Offensive was starting.
Some of the Donut Dollies worked at recreation centers in rear bases. Stevens and later Yarborough were among the women who spent most of their days hopping on helicopters, flying to fire support bases, and spending time with the troops there.
“We put together programs on various topics, like movies, cars, food, history … and had two competing teams answer quiz-show-like questions. We served them food in the field. We ate with them and heard their stories on top of their bunkers. Our days started at 6 a.m. on the first chopper out and end ended when we got back to our base camps at 7 p.m., dirty and exhausted.”
Stevens served initially with the 9th Infantry Division in the Mekong Delta area. She ended up with the 1st Air Cavalry and was among the first contingent of Red Cross women allowed near the DMZ.
She has a framed photo of her with troops there.
She turned in her pale blue dress after finishing her 1-year tour near the Cambodian border. But she did not return home. She bought a Pan Am around-the-world ticket and visited 25 countries, spending just a few dollars a day, and setting the stage for what became her career — owning a Ponte Vedra Beach travel agency.
While Stevens was circling the globe in 1969, Yarborough was arriving in Vietnam.
She had graduated from college and begun teaching on an island in the Ohio River near Pittsburgh when she was watching a Bob Hope Christmas special.
“At one point there were these girls in pale blue dresses, talking about the Red Cross,” she said.
She signed up, trained for two weeks in Washington, D.C., and landed in Saigon in the summer of 1969.
Some of the women went because they supported the war. Some went because they opposed it but wanted to learn more. She went, she said, simply to support the men who had no choice but to be there.
She started out with a unit on the coast, at Qui Nohn. But eventually she was at a base near Cambodia, living in two trailers with five other women and, like Stevens, flying in Huey helicopters each day, hopping out and saying, “Hi, I’m Margie. I’m from Pittsburgh …”
The Donut Dollies not only made that initial impression, they made a lasting one.
In 2008, a Vietnam vet, Kerry “Doc” Pardue wrote a poem titled: “The Gals Dressed in Powder Blue.” It said: “You were our moms, our sisters, our girlfriends, our wives. Who brought to us a sense of sanity in an insane world of war.”
As young as the Donut Dollies were, the troops typically were even younger, many just 18 or 19 years old. Yarborough makes a point to say — and Stevens echoes separately — that the men invariably treated them with nothing but respect.
When Yarborough got home, she taught school, got divorced, married a Navy pilot — how she ended up in Jacksonville — and became a lawyer. Now 70 and retired, her passion is helping animals. She founded Friends of Jacksonville Animals.
Many of the Donut Dollies remained active in social causes. Stevens said going to Vietnam “made me pay a lot more attention to what our government is doing, let’s put it that way.”
Even though three Donut Dollies died in Vietnam, you won’t find their names on the Vietnam Wall in Washington, D.C. They are not veterans. So the story of these women is a bit like one of those 1960s Polaroid, fading with each passing year.
While it’s tempting to say it’s a forgotten story, that isn’t exactly true. Norman Anderson, the son of a Donut Dolly, has spent 15 years working on a documentary. And the troops who were there haven’t forgotten.
When Stevens participated in a panel discussion at WJCT, a man came up to her afterward and gave her a hug.
“I was in the 9th Division,” he said. “I remember you coming out to see us. You did make us feel better.”