Return to Vietnam Documentary film to explore role of ‘Donut Dollies’ in Vietnam War



Last modified: Wednesday, August 20, 2014

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the clash between U.S. and North Vietnamese naval forces that prompted President Lyndon Johnson to call for a dramatic buildup of U.S. troops in Vietnam.

Four years after that, in 1968, Dorset Anderson, a recent college graduate, landed in Vietnam to begin a one-year hitch as a “Donut Dolly” — a volunteer with the Red Cross whose job was to help boost the morale of U.S. troops by bringing food (including, yes, doughnuts), playing cards and board games, or spending time just talking with them, serving as a reminder of friends and sisters back home.

It was a role that Anderson, of Cummington, relished. Just 23 at the time, her job with what was officially known as the Supplemental Recreation Activities Overseas (SRAO) program has remained one of her life’s most vivid experiences — one that her son, Norman Anderson, is chronicling in a documentary film that will include accompanying his mother and one of her former colleagues back to Vietnam this fall.

“I’d heard so much about this story growing up, and I’d thought for awhile that it would make a great subject for a film,” said Norman Anderson, 33, a television and film producer living in southern California who returns to the Valley on a fairly regular basis. He was back in the area in early June to do some filming and visit his mother and his father, also named Norman.

“This is really an untold story,” Anderson said. “The Vietnam War as a whole has had a lot of coverage, but the story of the Donut Dollies has kind of been forgotten.”

Anderson has been working on the film for a number of years, in between his “day job” producing reality TV shows such as “The Car Chasers” and “Savage Family Diggers,” among others.

Using old photographs, documentary film footage from the Vietnam War era, and interviews with former Donut Dollies, he hopes to tell a larger story of the 627 women who served in the SRAO program between the mid- 1960s and the early 1970s, including their reflections about why they went and how the experience affected their lives.

Donut Dollies also served during World War II and the Korean War; the program was not renewed after the Vietnam War.

Dorset Anderson says the main thrust of her work in Vietnam was “to stay upbeat and to try and help [the soldiers] stay upbeat. It was hard at times — we saw the results of the war, we saw the wounded. But we couldn’t stay down in the dumps. We had a job to do.”

Anderson, now 69, says it’s been more than 40 years since she left Vietnam but that “there’s hardly a day that goes by that I don’t think about it, don’t think about the people I met, the friends I made.”

Given just a few weeks of training before they were sent to Vietnam, Anderson and her fellow SRAO volunteers had to do a good amount of on-the-job learning once they were “in country” to determine how they might best help. Serving for weeks or even months at a time on or near U.S. bases, they sometimes came under mortar and rocket attack and would sometimes be shuttled in helicopters and planes from location to location.

They also had to learn how to deal with unwanted attention from some U.S. servicemen, although Anderson recalls that by far the majority were “very, very good to us, very respectful. There really was a bond between us.”

This fall, she plans to go back to Vietnam with her son and her good friend and fellow Donut Dolly, Mary Blanchard-Bowe, of Texas, to see the places where she served, to connect with American soldiers and the Vietnamese. Norman Anderson, who has already visited Vietnam to scout possible filming sites, believes having the two women return to the country will give the film some additional emotional resonance — but that it’s also important to do now, considering their advancing age.

“That’s a big part of why I’m doing this film,” he said. “I don’t want these stories to be lost.”

Making the decision

Looking back on her experience, Dorset Anderson, who ran a housecleaning business for many years in the Hilltowns, says she became a Donut Dolly in part because, just out of college in 1968, she wasn’t quite sure what she wanted to do and was looking for a novel experience.

“I really knew nothing about the [Vietnam] war, the controversy and politics,” she said. “I was actually kind of annoyed with myself that I didn’t know more about it.”

Born in New York City but raised primarily in West Virginia, Anderson studied theater at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia and then sociology at St. Louis University, also a Jesuit school, in Missouri. After graduating from SLU, she visited a U.S. Army recruitment center in St. Louis and learned of the SRAO program, which was aimed at young female college graduates. She and her friend Blanchard-Rowe, her SLU roommate, decided to join up.

Their time at a Jesuit school, which stressed the idea of service, was likely a factor in that decision, Anderson notes. “I wanted to help others, and this was a way to do it.” Though worried about her safety, her parents supported her decision to go to Vietnam.

Anderson was stationed for several months outside a U.S. airbase in the coastal city of Nha Trang, living in a villa across the street from the city’s red-light district. She also spent time at an Army base in Cu Chi, near Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital, and later at another airbase at Tuy Hòa, a coastal city about 320 miles north of Saigon. In addition, she sometimes visited more advanced U.S. fire bases.

At some of those places, Anderson and her fellow workers dealt with rough conditions at times, like cold-water showers, Viet Cong mortar attacks and drenching rains during the wet season. To help the troops, they’d look for ways to remind them of home — staging performance pieces like replicating a TV quiz show, for instance, or decorating a recreation hall for Halloween, which the soldiers would help them do.

“We’d also make up our own programs, like ‘Name That Celebrity,’ ” said Anderson. “We’d try to be creative.”

In a short film clip Norman Anderson posted online as part of a Kickstarter campaign for his film, Blanchard-Rowe recalls dressing up as Santa Claus before Christmas 1968 for troops at one base. “They’d tell me what they wanted for Christmas, some of which I can repeat, and some of which I can’t,” she says with a droll laugh.

Dorset Anderson says she also got to know and enjoy the company of some Vietnamese people who worked on the bases; she stayed on in Vietnam for an additional six months after her SRAO stint, working at an American Express bank with the U.S. military command in Saigon.

Above all, she took satisfaction in her efforts to keep up the spirits of the troops — and to stay positive herself in the midst of war. She points to a photo of her at the time, wearing her Red Cross uniform and a broad smile, as she and another Donut Dolly chat at a base with a U.S. soldier in helmet and fatigues; he’s got a big smile as well.

“Look how happy he made us,” Anderson said.

In a follow-up email, Anderson says she still marvels at the positive and respectful treatment she and her colleagues received from the troops. “How they managed such charm and humor was very impressive. We also knew we were protected no matter what...I was always very humbled.”

Pieces of the puzzle

Her son has been steadily exploring opportunities to expand his film resume, from directing short documentaries to writing scripts for various productions. A graduate of Williams College, where he studied German and music, Norman Anderson traces his interest in film in part to the year after he graduated, when he taught English in Vienna, Austria as a Fulbright Scholar. His parents had given him a video camera before he left, and he did considerable filming in Europe.

With the help of a Sloan Fellowship, he entered a master’s program in filmmaking at the University of Southern California, focusing on screenwriting and documentary making. He’s since worked on film and TV projects in several countries.

As part of his research for “The Donut Dollies,” Anderson attended a reunion of SRAO women in New Mexico to find former Dollies to interview. He said he’s accumulated over 15 hours of film and will add more in Vietnam. He also interviewed an ex-GI he met earlier this year in Vietnam, a man who’s helping him make connections with some other former servicemen.

“A lot of the pieces of the puzzle are there” in the film so far, Anderson said, “and we’ll be adding more.”

Through a Facebook site (www.facebook.com/thedonutdollies), he’s also hoping to attract more attention and funding, with the goal of finishing the documentary next year and getting it into festivals and other screenings. Noting that there are other websites devoted to the experience of the Donut Dollies, he said “I think there’s definitely some growing interest in this topic.”

As one former serviceman said on a post at the documentary’s Facebook site, “Those ladies deserve recognition. They had no political ax to grind, they weren’t getting rich and they were a long way from home. They were only there to make us feel good.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.




 


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