Red Cross Donut Dol­lies bring a touch of home to our sol­diers

bring a touch of home

The Covington News - - FRONT PAGE - Pete Mecca is a Viet­nam vet­eran, colum­nist and free­lance writer. You can reach him at avet­er­ or avet­er­

Most Amer­i­cans haven’t ex­pe­ri­enced that, gun­fire ev­ery night in your neigh­bor­hood, ex­plo­sions, death all around you. I came to love the Viet­namese peo­ple; that year in Nam di­rected the rest of my life.”

Due to the in­ge­nu­ity and can-do at­ti­tude of Yanks in World War II, the Bri­tish wit­nessed their Lon­don Lor­ries re­mod­eled into odd-look­ing club­mo­biles that smelled of cof­fee and donuts. In July and Au­gust of 1944, brand-new club­mo­biles crossed the stormy English Chan­nel as re­mod­eled two-and-a-half ton Army trucks. Th­ese ve­hi­cles also smacked of hot Joe and cir­cu­lar pas­try. Even­tu­ally 80 club­mo­biles and 320 fe­males known as “club­mo­bile girls” braved the haz­ards of war to pro­vide our sol­diers with familiar tastes and a touch of home. Fifty-two of the ladies would die in the line of duty.

“Club­mo­bile girls” had to meet cer­tain cri­te­ria: some col­lege, a pleas­ant per­son­al­ity, and at­trac­tive­ness. Their re­quire­ments tough­ened dur­ing the Korean and Viet­nam Wars: a col­lege de­gree was a must, high moral stan­dards, at­trac­tive­ness, the gift of gab, and a knack for smil­ing when you wanted to weep. Most GIs in all three wars called th­ese ded­i­cated Red Cross work­ers Donut Dol­lies. This is one of their sto­ries.

Mary Atkin­son Robeck grew up in Ca­jun Coun­try a few feet be­low sea level in a city called New Or­leans, bet­ter known as Nawl­ins’. Her B.A. de­gree was at­tained at Wil­liam Carey Col­lege in Hat­ties­burg, Miss., then Mary con­tin­ued her stud­ies at the Uni­ver­sity of South­ern Mis­sis­sippi to earn a Mas­ter’s De­gree in So­ci­ol­ogy.

“I al­ways wanted an un­usual life, a life of ser­vice,” Mary said. “In grad school I saw an ad for the Red Cross. They needed work­ers in mil­i­tary hos­pi­tals and for ser­vice in Viet­nam. In the fall of 1970 I flew to At­lanta for an in­ter­view. I qual­i­fied and asked for the first open­ing in a mil­i­tary hos­pi­tal as a so­cial or recre­ation worker in the Southeast. I went home and told my par­ents the fur­thest post­ing would be North Carolina. So I waited; waited for months, and was in the mid­dle of tests and fin­ish­ing my the­sis for a Mas­ter’s. I asked God, ‘Lord, make some­thing hap­pen.’”

Ask, and ye shall re­ceive. Three days later Mary re­ceived a phone call from the Red Cross. In­stead of a post­ing to a state­side mil­i­tary hos­pi­tal, the Red Cross asked if Viet­nam was an op­tion for con­sid­er­a­tion. Mary re­called, “I agreed im­me­di­ately. Since I had asked God to do some­thing it seemed like the right thing to do.”

She had two weeks to get things in or­der, fin­ish and turn in her the­sis, get all her shots and a pass­port, say good­bye to friends and fam­ily. “I am not a coura­geous per­son and have a deadly fear of heights,” Mary stated. “So the peo­ple in my home­town were stunned at my de­ci­sion, but my par­ents were ab­so­lutely hor­ri­fied. My mother was so des­per­ate to talk me out of it, she said, ‘You know there’s not go­ing to be enough wa­ter; you’re not go­ing to be able to wash your hair ev­ery day like you love to do.’ They thought I’d lost my mind.” Her salary: $7,000 a year.

First stop, At­lanta: “So, I’m sit­ting in a ho­tel room in At­lanta wait­ing to travel to Wash­ing­ton, DC, for train­ing, and think­ing, ‘What have I done?’ Then I’m in Wash­ing­ton at the Red Cross Na­tional Head­quar­ters, snow, walk­ing to class ev­ery day, learn­ing mil­i­tary pro­to­col, ranks, Red Cross his­tory, proper con­duct… it was ex­cit­ing. Drug en­force­ment folks came to our class and ac­tu­ally burned mar­i­juana so we’d rec­og­nize the smell. We had the rep­u­ta­tion of the Red Cross on our shoul­ders so we didn’t want to be in a sit­u­a­tion to em­bar­rass the or­ga­ni­za­tion or our­selves.”

Jan­uary 1971 – “We landed at Tan Son Nhut AFB in Saigon at three or four o’clock in the morn­ing. Dark, hot, steamy, wel­come to Viet­nam. I was amazed dur­ing the drive to the ho­tel to see refugees living in boxes or tin sheds. In­side our ho­tel I saw South Viet­namese sol­diers sleep­ing in the lobby. Af­ter we got into a room I told my room­mate, Ilene, how nice it was of the ho­tel to let the sol­diers sleep in the lobby. Ilene said, ‘Mary, you’re an id­iot. Those sol­diers are sup­posed to be guard­ing the ho­tel.’”

“The next morn­ing a lady came in from the field to train us for a week about what to do or not to do, the ins and outs of Viet­nam. Then we were on our way to Qui Nhon on a C-130. Prob­lem was, Qui Nhon was aflame in ri­ots. Ap­par­ently a kid had been hit by an Army truck and the peo­ple turned vi­o­lent. We landed safely then a Red Cross lady came to get us, took us to her room un­til things calmed down. So, we’re sit­ting in this room and all of a sud­den a women runs in, says ‘Hello, I’m Su­san Frankhart your unit leader, there’s a chop­per wait­ing, let’s go,’ and we were gone that quickly.”

“We didn’t have time to think or worry. We got on the chop­per, took off, dropped off a wounded ARVN sol­dier at the hos­pi­tal then flew on to the Quincy Com­pound across town from Qui Nhon. We had a rec hooch called the ‘Happy Hooch’ where G.I.s could play pool or ping pong, drink Kool-Aid and eat pop­corn. We didn’t have donuts. Too hot and hu­mid. I quickly learned two girls worked the Happy Hooch and the rest went out to fire sup­port bases, land­ing zones, raid bases, and we flew into Phu Cat to visit MACV teams out­side the base. We flew into Pleiku of­ten and into An Khe which by that time was ba­si­cally a MASH unit.”

The Donut Dol­lies, mi­nus the donuts, called their chop­per runs Mis­sions. Mission 1 to per­haps An Khe, Mission 2 to Phu Cat, Mission 3 to Pleiku, and so forth. Pro­grams for the troops in­cluded classes and stud­ies on camp­ing, US Pres­i­dents, even cheese. Sur­pris­ingly, many of the sol­diers stud­ied be­fore their classes on pro­gram top­ics. Mary re­called, “The guys were very in­volved and looked for­ward to our vis­its… of course a woman with round eyes in Viet­nam drew a lot of at­ten­tion. The Army cooks helped make our re­fresh­ments and we loved the dog han­dlers. They were great guys.”

Some sol­diers just wanted to talk; oth­ers to hear a soft voice, oth­ers to gaze upon a blonde-haired lady. Mary said, “Sooner or later they would ask us about our big can­vas bags, ‘Hey, what’s in the bag to­day?’ and in min­utes we’d be into one of our pro­grams.” Red Cross recre­ation in a war zone re­quired plan­ning. Mary re­called, “We’d call the fire sup­port bases or LZs the night be­fore. If they got hit in the morn­ings, we went there in the af­ter­noons; if they’re hit in the af­ter­noons, we flew in that morn­ing. I guess we were on a Viet Cong timetable. Ex­plo­sions would still oc­cur off base, usu­ally land mines.”

Mary was never at a raid camp, fire sup­port base, or LZ that re­ceived in­com­ing dur­ing her vis­its. Qui Nhon, how­ever, was a dif­fer­ent story. Mary said, “The sec­ond week at Qui Nhon a unit leader ran in and said, ‘ We’re on Red Alert, put on your flak vests, hel­mets, and pull a mat­tress over your heads. She walked out the door then we heard her yell, ‘Oh, my God!’ Light trav­els faster than sound, so she saw the ammo dump go up in a big ball of fire, then the sound hit us. The walls of our hooch moved with the shock wave to the ends of the nails. Then mor­tar rounds started hit­ting around our hooch. Af­ter the alert one of our driv­ers told us he couldn’t be­lieve we were safe, that the mor­tar rounds danced all around our hooch but never hit us.”

Her post­ing at Qui Nhon lasted five months. Dur­ing an­other attack, their Red Cross rec room took a di­rect hit; all per­son­nel had just left, no­body was hurt.

Mary’s next port-of-call was ac­tu­ally a port, the huge an­chor­age called Cam Ranh Bay. “Cam Ranh was very ac­tive,” she re­called. “We had a nice rec cen­ter and went on mis­sions to places like Tuy Hoa. Plus, we had new re­cruits com­ing in all the time. They couldn’t be­lieve the first thing they saw in Viet­nam was round-eyed women, it made them feel good, boosted morale. Those young boys thought ‘Maybe I will make it home.’ By that time I had come to hate war.”

For her last three months in Viet­nam, Mary was in the Mekong Delta. “My base was Binh Thuy,” she said. “The Mekong Delta wit­nessed a lot of war but by 1971 most of our boys were gone. My old room­mate, Ilene, met up with me again in the Delta. One day we flew on a chop­per near the Cam­bo­dian bor­der. Well, Ilene and I had been to the vil­lage in that area be­fore, but our chop­per pi­lots were new and they flew right by a moun­tain that we rec­og­nized. We knew the chop­per was in Cam­bo­dia. The pi­lots had been given wrong co­or­di­nates. We got out of there real fast!”

On an­other mission Mary dozed off in the chop­per as one of the door gun­ners cleared his ma­chine gun. “That sounds a lit­tle crazy try­ing to sleep with a ma­chine gun go­ing off, but you get use to the noise af­ter be­ing in Nam for so long. Well, a spent shell cas­ing struck my leg and I thought I’d been wounded. I nearly jumped out of my skin. Scared me to death!”

Her fi­nal thoughts on the Delta: “I know our sol­diers hated the Delta but I loved it. By 1971 we were al­lowed to go off base into the lo­cal econ­omy, to eat, shop. We were on a boat once, mi­nus one of the crew be­cause he was on leave. He came back a week later and was killed on the same boat. Yeah, the war still raged, but Ilene and I did more trav­el­ing in the Delta than any­where else.”

On our sol­diers: “We quickly learned that the mil­i­tary had all kinds of peo­ple. Good guys, bad guys, ones that used drugs, oth­ers that drank, and boys that stayed in church. I came home with a lot of re­spect for the peo­ple in a coun­try at war. Most Amer­i­cans haven’t ex­pe­ri­enced that, gun­fire ev­ery night in your neigh­bor­hood, ex­plo­sions, death all around you. I came to love the Viet­namese peo­ple; that year in Nam di­rected the rest of my life.”

Mary Atkin­son Robeck con­tin­ued to serve: She helped the Viet­namese boat peo­ple by join­ing the Peace Corps in the West Indies, re­cruited for the Peace Corps in Philadel­phia, ended up in In­done­sia and Sin­ga­pore to process thou­sands of Viet­namese refugees for pas­sage to the U.S., and taught them English to help their tran­si­tion. She met her fu­ture hus­band in In­done­sia, a case worker; they flew home, got mar­ried, and flew back to In­done­sia. Mary worked at a Bos­ton Naval hos­pi­tal for the Red Cross and an­other mil­i­tary hos­pi­tal in Michi­gan, co­or­di­nated blood drives, served as a 2nd Lt. in the Na­tional Guard, and fi­nally had her two chil­dren at the age of 40 and 42.

“My hus­band and I have had a full life,” she said. Asked if they en­joy re­tire­ment, Mary replied, “We’re not re­tired. I just took a new job with Habi­tat for Hu­man­ity as pro­grams manager for re­stores, ac­cu­mu­lat­ing build­ing sup­plies, tubs, things like that. My hus­band drives a school bus and on the week­ends is an emer­gency driver for a men­tal health cen­ter in At­lanta.”

Af­ter a short pause, Mary re­flected on Viet­nam: “You know, when the guys left Viet­nam they were happy. I got on the plane home and cried. I didn’t want to leave, and I’d go back to do it again.”

The words on the back of her Donut Dolly T-shirt: A touch of home, in a com­bat zone; A smil­ing face, at a bleak fire­base; The illusion of calm, in Viet­nam.

sub­mit­ted photo / The Cov­ing­ton News

Counter-clock­wise from top: For­mer Donut Dolly Mary Robeck at the At­lanta HQ for the Amer­i­can Red Cross; Mary board­ing an­other chop­per for an­other mission; Mary meet­ing with the G.I.s; Mary mak­ing the boys feel at home; Mary in front of the Happy Hooch.


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