They were at the cusp of change — women's liberation, civil rights and a walk on the moon. And in an era when a youthful president challenged a generation to national service, 627 young women answered a call to boost the morale of American GIs in Vietnam.
Clad in light blue uniforms and armed with jokes and games, these representatives of the American Red Cross — nicknamed "Donut Dollies" — brought a touch of home to war-weary troops half a world away.
"We were the cheerleaders," said Ann Copeland Young of Brooksville, who landed in Vietnam in 1968. "We had to make everyone laugh."
She and sister Donut Dollies crossed the countryside in helicopters, jeeps and trucks, telling corny jokes, playing silly games and serving gallons of Kool-Aid. They offered a willing ear, shared a meal and learned to dive for cover at the shout of "incoming." They missed milk and ice cream, hot showers and indoor plumbing. Three of them lost their lives.
Despite it all, many of these civilians who went to war would do it again.
"The young men that were there needed our support," said Young, 64, now a psychotherapist. "When I first got there and started looking at them, it dawned on me that three months before, the thing they were most concerned about was the wax job on their cars."
This weekend 65 Donut Dollies have reunited in St. Petersburg, traveling from as far away as Australia and Alaska. On Saturday they gathered for dinner at the St. Petersburg Yacht Club and watched a documentary about their experience.
The women inherited the nickname Donut Dollies from American Red Cross workers who made doughnuts and organized activities for the troops during World War II. The morale-boosting program was revived during the Korean War. Eight Donut Dollies from that conflict joined those from Vietnam this weekend.
The Vietnam program, launched in 1965, recruited single women between the ages of 21 and 24 with college degrees. Their commitment to the officially named Supplemental Recreational Activities Overseas program was for one year.
Tampa resident Mary Jo Shenk was 21 and about to graduate from Florida State University when she interviewed for the program in 1967. Volunteering to go to Vietnam seemed natural.
"My dad was retired from the Air Force. I grew up traveling," she said.
Training consisted of two weeks at Red Cross headquarters in Washington, D.C., but foremost in Shenk's memory are the shots she got for the journey to Southeast Asia and the classes on Red Cross history.
"I don't think the best training in the world could prepare you for a war zone" where many of the women lived in Quonset huts and used outhouses, said Melinda Koester Pendino, 62, who grew up on Davis Islands in Tampa and went to Vietnam in 1969.
The starting salary was just under $5,000.
"Other than going on R&R, you really couldn't spend it," Shenk said. "They didn't have women's deodorant in the PX, so you had to buy whatever the men wore. If you needed shampoo, your mother would send it. Feminine products, you had to get it from home."
They worked long hours putting on programs at recreation centers and in the field. The goal was to engage troops in activities such as games and quizzes, distracting them, if only for a moment, from the realities of war.
"It was a very organized thing," Young said. "Each girl was responsible for developing a program about something that would be of interest to a large number of men — dogs, cars — and then we'd have a number of activities, little audience participation games."
"You might be there 20 minutes. You might be there two hours. If there's 10 guys or 100 guys, you have to be flexible," Shenk recalled.
"You always had to end with three jokes," Pendino said. "You rotated your jokes. I never made up a joke. I would learn it."
The reward would be to see guys yelling and screaming as they got involved in the simple diversions, the women said.
As college graduates, Donut Dollies were generally older than the young men they entertained, most of whom had been drafted.
"Most of them thought you were their mother, their sister, their wife. It was a reminder of home. They had you on a pedestal," Shenk said.
"We had curfews," she said. "If anybody was messing around, they had to work real hard at it."
Many of the women married and had children after they returned to the States. They also pursued careers. Their work in Vietnam changed their lives, some to a greater degree than others.
"I think everything you do makes you who you are. I'm basically a shy person. Maybe it helped me from being shy. If I hadn't gone to Vietnam, I would have been a very nice, reticent, boring person," said Shenk, a mother and grandmother who has lived with her husband, Rusty, in the same South Tampa neighborhood for 42 years.
The Vietnam experience isn't something she talks about much.
"Unless someone was there, you cannot understand. You can't explain it to people. You say you played games with the troops. How cute is that? The people who understand it were the GIs," she said.
Young, the psychotherapist, takes a clinical view of their experience.
"We never had time to be afraid or to feel too much of anything," she said. "We worked so hard and long, that's what we all experienced. There was no time for processing it. There were a lot of incidents, but you had to get to the bunker, you had to get to the helicopter. There were 10,000 guys to see each week, and so we laughed through it all."
This weekend, they talked, laughed, shed a tear or two and watched the documentary, A Touch of Home: the Vietnam War's Red Cross Girls. The one-hour movie, which premiered in 2008, was directed by Cheryl Fries of Austin, Texas.
Fries, 49, who interviewed dozens of Donut Dollies at a New Mexico reunion, said she was intrigued with "the paradox of their whole experience."
"On one hand, it was the era of the women's movement and yet these women were going to war basically as cheerleaders," she said.
"Because of the helicopters, they took them out to the most remote places where the GIs were and they had no armor, no helmets, no flak jackets. Their helicopters were shot at. Really, this job of being a cheerleader was very dangerous and very groundbreaking."
It was after the movie's release that Shenk and Rene Johnson, a former Donut Dolly in Tallahassee, began talking about a Florida reunion.
"We're a group of women that have such a unique background, experience, that it is often very hard to talk about it to anyone," said Johnson, 64, who went to Vietnam in 1969 after graduating from FSU. "It's so great to be able to get together with other women who want to hear the stories and want to tell their own."
Johnson has a favorite one about the GIs.
"There's a mountain, Nui Ba Den, and we went up there on Christmas morning, supposedly to hand out Christmas gifts, and they had built us a pink outhouse of our very own" and wrapped it in red ribbon, she said.
This weekend the women reminisced over scrapbooks and albums. Donut Dollies, said Fries, the filmmaker, are a treasure trove of Vietnam War history.
"Because of their very mobile work in the helicopters, they documented the war in a way no one else did. Did they have trouble talking about it? To this day, I don't believe that they all shared everything. I worked with a lot of Vietnam veterans, and I understand the limits of that. There's a lot of sacred ground that people who have been to war understand and a lot of us who have not been to war can only respect," she said.
"They will all tell you what a privilege it was to have that opportunity. It's just very inspiring. Today, there are a lot of people who talk about supporting the troops, and these are women who did."
Waveney Ann Moore can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2283.