DONUT DOLLIES

Who doesn’t love donuts. The puffy little mounds of fried deliciousness can be found in countries all over the world. They may or may not have a hole in the middle and they may be called by another name … beignets, bombaloni, bismarks, sfenj, lokma, badusha and more; but we all know what these deep-fried sweet yeasty balls of tenderness dipped in a sugary substance are … and we love them.

Although the donut appears to be such a true symbol of America, I wonder how many know that the donut was not invented here. I wonder, also, how many people know how important the donut became during a time of crisis?

A fried ball of dough can be traced as far back as prehistoric times, but historians believe that the sweetened version of fried dough we’ve all come to love originated in the Netherlands, and were (and still are) known as ‘olykoeks’ or oily cakes. From Amsterdam the donuts or oily cakes came to New Amsterdam (or, as we know it today, New York City) in the late 1700s. But as popular as they are today, donuts really didn’t come into their own until World War I. Women volunteers from the U.S. and England served up donuts daily to home-sick American boys. These brave, selfless women earned the name “donut dollies“, a name that is still being used today.

It began in 1917 when the Salvation Army sent 250 women volunteers to the trenches of eastern France in order to boost morale by providing some of the same comforting touches the soldiers would have enjoyed at home. One of the more specific requests from the men was for a taste of something sweet, like pies or cookies. But baking in the battlefields was absolutely impossible, never mind trying to get supplies.

Two of the women, Margaret Sheldon and Helen Purviance came up with the idea for making donuts. They collected surplus rations for the dough and used wine bottles and shell casings for rolling pins. They then filled a soldier’s helmet with lard for frying. The Boston Daily Globe reprinted a letter from Sgt. Edgar S. Chase of Haverhill, Massachusetts, who wrote from the battlefield, “Can you imagine hot doughnuts, and pie and all that sort of stuff? Served by mighty good looking girls, too.”

Archival footage courtesy of the Salvation Army

These brave women became lovingly known as “donut dollies” and were just one small part of a larger female war effort. John T. Edge in Donuts: An American Passion cites that these treats were an immediate hit, and cemented the Armed Forces’ relationship with donuts, and the women who served them. “By the close of World War I, the Salvation Army was among the strongest charitable forces in America – and their chosen totem, the doughnut, was an ingrained symbol of home.”

When World War II began, the Red Cross immediately began recruiting young women to serve as “donut dollies.” The women had to be at least 25 years of age, with a college education, pass a physical exam, and have a pleasing personality. They needed to be intelligent, charming and sensible. They were expected to be “the girl next door” … nothing more. From the many volunteers, only one woman out of six passed.

The Red Cross then began retrofitting English Army buses to serve as “Clubmobiles” supplying not just coffee and donuts to the troops but outfitted with a small lounge where the men could sit for a few moments. With freshly made donuts, hot coffee, a record player, gum, cigarettes, magazines, newspapers and a friendly face these Clubmobiles provided the morale boost the soldiers desperately needed. The first clubmobile arrived in France just days after the D-day invasion, staffed with three women volunteers. By July 1944 there were well over 100 clubmobiles in action.

“We were standing in the village street in a row serving our coffee and donuts and I was at the end of the line with the coffee dipper. And a G.I. came up to me, a very young guy, a 19-year-old, like a lot of them were, and he said his name was Jerry and he just needed to talk to me,” said Barbara Pathe, a Clubmobile worker with the troops in Germany. “And so he stood there and talked to me the whole time we were serving. Listening was the biggest thing we did. Nothing else, just listening.”

With volunteers from every walk of life, women played an important role in the American war effort, risking, and some losing, their lives to do so. The Donut Dollies continued their service throughout France, Belgium, Luxembourg and Germany until 1945 when WW II was won, but they did not stop there. They continued to operate during not only the Korean War, but the Vietnam War as well.

The Vietnam War was a divisive and highly controversial war. Morale within the troops was at an all-time low. In 1965, Defense Department officials asked the Red Cross to establish a program in Vietnam and the “Donut Dollies” were put into service once again. From 1965 through 1972, nearly 630 brave, young women served in Vietnam through this program.

In 2014 filmmaker Norm Anderson made a documentary about two women who served as “Donut Dollies” in Vietnam as they attempted to retrace their steps during this tumultuous era. One of the donut dollies was Norm’s mother. The other, her best friend. If you are interested in learning more, please click on this link …
The Donut Dollies an untold story about American women in Vietnam.

Donut Dollies in service to the Red Cross in Vietnam. Credit Larry Ray/American Red Cross

From World War I to the Vietnam War “Donut Dollies” were not shielded from the horrors of war. Not only did they drive the buses and fix them when they broke down, the Donut Dollies risked their lives every day as they tried to fulfill their mission to cheer up the troops. They saw death all around them, and some women lost their lives, but each day they had to compartmentalize their own fear and sadness, and provide that glimmer of hope and kindness which was so appreciated. 

We can all sit back and debate the merits of Dunkin’ Donuts vs Krispy Kreme vs the local donut shop, but one thing we can all agree on is that “we love donuts and we love the “Donut Dollies“.

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References: Smithsonian, All Good Found, NY Times, Easy Science, War Veterans, My Recipes,
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