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Bravest women I had ever met

Jack P. McCormick, chopper pilot: “I would occasionally carry them out to the field to be with the troops when I was flying with the First Cav in 1970 out of Tay Ninh. These ladies were the bravest women I had ever met.”

While Jane Fonda was in North Vietnam aiding and abetting our enemy, women of character and selflessness served in Vietnam. Their mission was dangerous yet down-to-earth: Give our soldiers something to smile about, offer the boys a touch of home, and let the guys know they are respected and appreciated. These ladies were affectionately known as the Donut Dollies.

On April 12, 2015, one of these gracious ladies, Mrs. Mary Robeck, was featured in “A Veteran’s Story.” To my good fortune, another gracious lady, Rachel Torrance, surfaced in Monticello. This is her story.

“When I first came in-country I had to report to a commanding general and attend a dinner. I had no idea what I was doing,” Rachel said. “At the dinner I sat beside his replacement, General Bond. Bond’s wife was a Donut Dolly in WWII. Later in the war General Bond became the only general in Vietnam killed by small arms fire. We always had dinner on Sunday evening with the general and his staff. It was strange, one evening we’re mixing with the top echelon then the rest of the time we’re together with enlisted guys and chopper pilots.”

Vietnam is a long way from the farming community of Milledgeville, GA, the birthplace of Rachel Torrance. “We raised cotton, corn, soybeans; farm work is tough and your hands can get soiled, but that was nothing compared to the heat and grime of Vietnam.” Rachel attended UGA after graduating from Baldwin County High School. “Coming back to the dorm one night I overheard a girl talking about Red Cross donut dollies. She had joined and that sparked my interest.”
Rachel called and received an appointment with the Red Cross. “I took a Greyhound bus to Atlanta then a taxi to a motel. The next day I went to the Red Cross southeast headquarters for a day long interview. One lady asked, ‘Do you like men?’ Well, I was too naïve to be scared, but I knew either a yes or no answer could work against me in diverse ways, so I told the truth. I replied, ‘Well, I’m 22 years old, in college, grew up with three brothers…yes, ma’am, I like men.’ She replied, ‘that’s damn good because there’s a lot of men in Vietnam!’”

Rachel was offered the job and accepted. “My father was okay with my decision then my mother surprised everybody with, ‘No mother wants a child that far from home, but if you want to go you should.’ A brother said, ‘I can’t advise you, I just volunteered for chopper training,’ but my older sister thought I had lost my mind.”

One thing Rachel recalled during her two week training in Washington, DC was the gamma globulin shot. “You knew when the girls received the gamma globulin injection,” she said, smiling. “They were dragging one leg behind them.” Rachel arrived in Saigon, Vietnam in November, ’69. “It was the middle of the night, machine guns all over the place, and the downtown hotel windows were taped. Pretty obvious we were in a war zone.”

After additional training in Saigon, Rachel’s first port-of-call was Long Bien. “We traveled mostly by chopper,” she said. “A lot of girls stayed at Long Bien, but our hearts were at the fire support bases. We visited Xuan Loc often, but that was like a 4-H club compared to a fire support base. The fire support guys were humble, shy, even afraid to talk with us, sort of like, ‘What are you doing here?’, but after we’d initiated the conversation the guys really warmed up, became very protective. The guys lived in primitive conditions, filthy all the time, but we loved them, great soldiers. You know, I grew up in farm country but never thought I was really dirty until Vietnam. We washed the grit from our hair every night, and I know your lady readers can appreciate that.”

On one mission to Signal Mountain north of Saigon Rachel was walking back to the chopper when she sensed a razor-sharp leg pain. A dog had left teeth marks in her flesh. (Dogs in Vietnam did not like the scent of perfume; they’d snarl and raise their hackles). Rachel cleaned the bite with a dirty rag found in the chopper. She received proper treatment at Long Bien but was confined to base for a series of 14 rabies shots in the stomach.

March of 1970: Rachel is transferred to Phuoc Vinh, north of Bien Hoa. “I was with the 1st Cav,” she said. “I loved the Cav. Those boys were in dogged combat, fighting all the time, lots of fire support bases, a great bunch of guys. At a recent reunion one of my friends reminded me of how we dodged the Grim Reaper at a 1st Cav fire support base named Flashing. No tree line, no real perimeter, and only one bunker used as the fire direction center. Instead of outgoing, we heard incoming. We were standing outside the bunker, startled, but one of the guys quickly pushed us into the bunker. It hit nearby.”

“The base commander was flying in a Loach Observation chopper above the camp and received the news that a couple of donut dollies were on the ground and under fire. He landed almost immediately and ordered the Loach crew to fly us out. I suppose it wouldn’t have done his career much good losing two donut dollies. The guys formed a circle around the Loach, bare chested with no flak vests, cheering and protecting us. A couple boys picked up pieces of shrapnel to give us as souvenirs. As the chopper spiraled out we saw one chopper that had been destroyed and numerous shell craters. That’s when we got scared, after the fact.”

Donut dollies normally had to ‘hitch’ a ride to their destinations. When stuck at huge bases like Tan Son Nhut, the dollies would use the control tower’s radio to send the message, ‘Hey, donut dollies stranded at Tan Son Nhut, anybody going to Long Bien?’ Rachel recalled, “That usually caused additional activity in the traffic pattern.”

George Meeker, “Ghostrider” Helicopter crew chief: “The Donut Dollies would visit Camp Holloway the Central Highlands. It was a welcome touch of home from real American women.”

April and May of 1970: Rachel said, “Our unit director T.W., short for Tumbleweed because she was from Texas, kept a map to watch the movement of fire support bases. She was studying her map one day then suddenly said, ‘Rachel, look at what’s happening…we’re crossing the border!’ The invasion of Cambodia was underway. The soldiers were hyped-up, it was payback time, no more sanctuaries for the VC and NVA. I know the people back home were having hissy fits about the invasion but the guys were happy to finally accomplish something significant in the war. I never really figured out the war and being over there made things even cloudier.”

Incoming was something to endure yet never get used to. Rachel said, “You know, after I returned to the states I was in bed one night when it thundered. I ended up on the floor.” On being in an artillery pit: “If the guys received a support call we’d take a break and sit on the sandbags while they fired the big guns. It was neat then, but we paid for it later.” Rachel has hearing loss, mostly low pitch sounds. She’s worn hearing aids for years.

Rachel was given an opportunity to work at Camp Eagle with the 101st Airborne. She said, “I casually accepted, didn’t show any excitement.” Underneath her casual demeanor, Rachel was doing backflips. One of her brothers, Richard, flew choppers for the 101st. “I was in the mess hall when the field director said, ‘Rachel, a soul brother called wanting your phone number to wish you a happy birthday but I wouldn’t give it to him.’ I replied, ‘you jackass, that’s my real brother and it really was my birthday!’ Richard told the folks back home he was flying a desk, in no danger. He’d already been shot down once and his copilot seriously injured.”
She recalls walking to the officers club with Richard. “Two jeeps loaded down with girls passed us on the way to a stand down. Even in that big open area the fragrance of perfume was very distinct. I couldn’t believe my brother, he was sniffing the air like an old hound dog. That was so funny.”
Rules were made; rules were broken. “I pulled a real coup being at the same base with my brother. And, yes, at fire support bases we shared a beer or two with the guys. If offered a beer, we’d say, ‘you don’t have anything else, do you?’ But if offered a different beverage, we’d again state, ‘you don’t have anything but beer, right?’ The boys caught on real fast.”
No ‘going away’ parties for Rachel. With a couple days left ‘in-country’ a typhoon cut her tour short. “I had to get my act together and get out of there quick, but those were some of the best days of my life. I think we all knew it would be an important year in our life, but didn’t realize it would affect us for the rest of our lives.”

Her worse day: “Some guys from the 101st got stuck in the rain for days on end, no food, no ammo, no way to get them out. They finally made it in, but with bleeding feet and bleeding hands from just being wet for so long. I saw a lot of things in Vietnam but for some reason that stuck with me.”

Her best day: “Every day. Yes, a lot of horror, but we visited hospitals and the guys appreciated us being there. We went out to a river barge manned by a bunch of Navy guys, very competitive men, we really had a great time with them. I know the Vietnam War was divisive at home, but we were there to help the guys that fought that war, to make them smile, to give them hope….yes, we did our part.”

After returning home, Rachel Torrance spent over 30 years with UGA’S extension service. Since 2001 she’s stayed busy with volunteer work in the community and leadership development. She sits on the housing authority board, tax equalization board, and the historical foundation board.

In the late 1990’s, Rachel returned to Vietnam with several veterans to participate in a journey from Saigon to Hanoi. She scaled a mountain in Laos, part of the infamous Lam Son 719 battle in early 1971. Avoiding unexploded munitions during their climb, Rachel let the men take the lead. Smiling, she stated, “There I was surrounded by men in Vietnam, just like in the good old days.”

Glenn Carr, Executive Officer of the 213th Chinook Helicopter Company at Phu Loi. “I recall a Dolly named Camilla. Flew her to several locations in Vietnam. Thirty five years later our 1st Donut Dolly joined the Atlanta Vietnam Veterans Business Association. Her name is Camilla Meyerson. You guessed it…thirty five years after the war, we met again.”