Debby Griffith MacSwain had only been in Vietnam for a couple of weeks when she was asked by a surgeon to hold the hand of a soldier who was about to die.
The year was 1969 and MacSwain, just out of college, was one of the Red Cross volunteers serving throughout the combat area who were commonly known as Donut Dollies. That day, she and her partner flew in a Chinook helicopter to Dong Ha where she visited a field hospital.
“I went in there, and it was very much like what you see on the TV show ‘M*A*S*H,’ ” MacSwain said. “I sat there, holding his hand and looking at this young man, thinking that he could have been my brother. That experience did something to me. … It’s when I grew up.”
MacSwain was part of a group of Red Cross volunteers who served overseas that gathered in Pittsburgh for a national conference last weekend.
One of the conference highlights occurred at the Heinz History Center, where the Donut Dollies from the Vietnam War era had an opportunity to meet with the Vietnam veterans they once served.
“The men were amazed that here was an American woman. It could be your sister, your mother, girlfriend, whatever. We were treated with great respect, always,” MacSwain said. “I never had anybody be disrespectful to me, and that was a great part of it, for all of us, and why a lot of the women here feel so strongly in admiration for the military.”
In Vietnam, hundreds of women answered the call to serve with a Red Cross Clubmobile, a sort of kitchen on wheels. The tradition dated back to World War II, when the Red Cross Clubmobile began traveling with soldiers in the field, providing refreshments and entertainment for the troops.
During the Vietnam era, the women traveled by helicopter, truck and jeep in 17 units throughout the country, providing audience-participation entertainment and comfort to soldiers serving in the field. The women had to be 21, have a college degree and be single to volunteer, according to MacSwain.
The oldest volunteer attending the conference in Pittsburgh was a 100-year-old woman from Berkeley, Calif., named Mary Lou Weller Chapman, who served during World War II.
“It’s 1943 and I’m in Tarrytown, N.Y., teaching physical education,” Chapman said. “I was looking at the magazine ‘Mademoiselle’ and saw a picture of a Red Cross gal in uniform and an American G.I. sitting in the countryside in England. Their bicycles were nearby. And I thought, ‘If that’s what it takes to win the war, I can do that.’ ”
Chapman went to England at a time when the country was being heavily bombed by the Germans. Like many of her fellow volunteers, she served coffee and doughnuts at seaports where the G.I.s were coming in — thus the name Donut Dollies.
“We were assigned one day to go to a hospital. And there was this one fellow whose face was completely covered with plaster except for a hole where his mouth was,” Chapman said. “He indicated to me that he wanted a doughnut. I sat there breaking it into little pieces and dropping it into his mouth as the tears were rolling down my face. That was the only time I cried through this.”
MacSwain did a lot of work in Vietnam, but making doughnuts and delivering them to the field was not part of it. The name Donut Dollies was a holdover from World War II and the Korean War.
“I only saw one doughnut during my yearlong deployment,” MacSwain said. “It was given to me by an Army sergeant, and I ate it!”
Much of MacSwain’s work involved developing recreational programs based mainly on television quiz shows and board games. Each program was designed to last an hour and had to have five or six activities in it.
“We would get on helicopters and go visit fire bases and places all over Vietnam,” MacSwain said. “And it was a long day. We’d go to one place, stay an hour, go to another place for an hour and do this six or seven times a day.
“I used to say that it was the best job I ever had. But people think, ‘Oh my God, you were in a war, how can you say that?’
“But it was the most creative and the most important job of my life,” MacSwain said. “I’m really glad that I went.”
Alan Nagy had been serving in the Army’s 1st Cavalry Division in 1970 when he was wounded in Cambodia. After that his company decided to make him the new company clerk.
He was sent to Bien Hao for training and met a Donut Dolly named Ellen Cadden, who was working in what was called SRAQ (Supplement Recreational Activities Overseas). Three weeks later, he asked her to marry him.
Ellen laughed. She wasn’t interested.
“My Dad had been in the military, and there was no way, really, for women to serve in the war,” Ellen said. “I wanted to do something more meaningful with my life besides get out of college and get married, you know.
“So, that was my reason for going to Vietnam. Our major purpose was to serve all of the enlisted men and bring a smile to the guys in the field and make them feel a touch of home.”
Ellen had definitely brought a smile to Nagy’s face. He persisted.
“I’m Methodist, she’s Baptist, and we got married in a Presbyterian church,” Nagy said as he stood with Ellen Cadden Nagy in the middle of the Heinz History Center’s Vietnam War exhibition. This August, they will celebrate their 48th wedding anniversary.
Meanwhile, at the opposite end of the history center, Chapman was thinking back to a memory from around Christmastime 1943.
“We were serving the B-24 crew members, and the gunners would ask to wear our dog tags for good luck. We weren’t supposed to ever take them off. This one fellow kept asking me, and I finally gave them to him.
“Well, he didn’t come back,” Chapman said. “By May of 1945, we were in Austria and it was the day after the war was over in Europe. They sent us to a POW camp.
“And who comes up to the Clubmobile but this fellow who had taken my dog tags. I said, ‘Where are my dog tags?’
And he said, ‘They’re at the bottom of the North Sea where we ditched.’ ”