Due to the ingenuity and can-do attitude of Yanks in World War II, the British witnessed their London Lorries remodeled into odd-looking clubmobiles that smelled of coffee and donuts. In July and August of 1944, brand-new clubmobiles crossed the stormy English Channel as remodeled two-and-a-half ton Army trucks. These vehicles also smacked of hot Joe and circular pastry. Eventually 80 clubmobiles and 320 females known as “clubmobile girls” braved the hazards of war to provide our soldiers with familiar tastes and a touch of home. Fifty-two of the ladies would die in the line of duty.
“Clubmobile girls” had to meet certain criteria: some college, a pleasant personality, and attractiveness. Their requirements toughened during the Korean and Vietnam Wars: a college degree was a must, high moral standards, attractiveness, the gift of gab, and a knack for smiling when you wanted to weep. Most GIs in all three wars called these dedicated Red Cross workers Donut Dollies. This is one of their stories.
Mary Atkinson Robeck grew up in Cajun Country a few feet below sea level in a city called New Orleans, better known as Nawlins’. Her B.A. degree was attained at William Carey College in Hattiesburg, Miss., then Mary continued her studies at the University of Southern Mississippi to earn a Master’s Degree in Sociology.
“I always wanted an unusual life, a life of service,” Mary said. “In grad school I saw an ad for the Red Cross. They needed workers in military hospitals and for service in Vietnam. In the fall of 1970 I flew to Atlanta for an interview. I qualified and asked for the first opening in a military hospital as a social or recreation worker in the Southeast. I went home and told my parents the furthest posting would be North Carolina. So I waited; waited for months, and was in the middle of tests and finishing my thesis for a Master’s. I asked God, ‘Lord, make something happen.’”
Ask, and ye shall receive. Three days later Mary received a phone call from the Red Cross. Instead of a posting to a stateside military hospital, the Red Cross asked if Vietnam was an option for consideration. Mary recalled, “I agreed immediately. Since I had asked God to do something it seemed like the right thing to do.”
She had two weeks to get things in order, finish and turn in her thesis, get all her shots and a passport, say goodbye to friends and family. “I am not a courageous person and have a deadly fear of heights,” Mary stated. “So the people in my hometown were stunned at my decision, but my parents were absolutely horrified. My mother was so desperate to talk me out of it, she said, ‘You know there’s not going to be enough water; you’re not going to be able to wash your hair every day like you love to do.’ They thought I’d lost my mind.” Her salary: $7,000 a year.
First stop, Atlanta: “So, I’m sitting in a hotel room in Atlanta waiting to travel to Washington, DC, for training, and thinking, ‘What have I done?’ Then I’m in Washington at the Red Cross National Headquarters, snow, walking to class every day, learning military protocol, ranks, Red Cross history, proper conduct… it was exciting. Drug enforcement folks came to our class and actually burned marijuana so we’d recognize the smell. We had the reputation of the Red Cross on our shoulders so we didn’t want to be in a situation to embarrass the organization or ourselves.”
January 1971 – “We landed at Tan Son Nhut AFB in Saigon at three or four o’clock in the morning. Dark, hot, steamy, welcome to Vietnam. I was amazed during the drive to the hotel to see refugees living in boxes or tin sheds. Inside our hotel I saw South Vietnamese soldiers sleeping in the lobby. After we got into a room I told my roommate, Ilene, how nice it was of the hotel to let the soldiers sleep in the lobby. Ilene said, ‘Mary, you’re an idiot. Those soldiers are supposed to be guarding the hotel.’”
“The next morning a lady came in from the field to train us for a week about what to do or not to do, the ins and outs of Vietnam. Then we were on our way to Qui Nhon on a C-130. Problem was, Qui Nhon was aflame in riots. Apparently a kid had been hit by an Army truck and the people turned violent. We landed safely then a Red Cross lady came to get us, took us to her room until things calmed down. So, we’re sitting in this room and all of a sudden a women runs in, says ‘Hello, I’m Susan Frankhart your unit leader, there’s a chopper waiting, let’s go,’ and we were gone that quickly.”
“We didn’t have time to think or worry. We got on the chopper, took off, dropped off a wounded ARVN soldier at the hospital then flew on to the Quincy Compound across town from Qui Nhon. We had a rec hooch called the ‘Happy Hooch’ where G.I.s could play pool or ping pong, drink Kool-Aid and eat popcorn. We didn’t have donuts. Too hot and humid. I quickly learned two girls worked the Happy Hooch and the rest went out to fire support bases, landing zones, raid bases, and we flew into Phu Cat to visit MACV teams outside the base. We flew into Pleiku often and into An Khe which by that time was basically a MASH unit.”
The Donut Dollies, minus the donuts, called their chopper runs Missions. Mission 1 to perhaps An Khe, Mission 2 to Phu Cat, Mission 3 to Pleiku, and so forth. Programs for the troops included classes and studies on camping, US Presidents, even cheese. Surprisingly, many of the soldiers studied before their classes on program topics. Mary recalled, “The guys were very involved and looked forward to our visits… of course a woman with round eyes in Vietnam drew a lot of attention. The Army cooks helped make our refreshments and we loved the dog handlers. They were great guys.”
Some soldiers just wanted to talk; others to hear a soft voice, others to gaze upon a blonde-haired lady. Mary said, “Sooner or later they would ask us about our big canvas bags, ‘Hey, what’s in the bag today?’ and in minutes we’d be into one of our programs.” Red Cross recreation in a war zone required planning. Mary recalled, “We’d call the fire support bases or LZs the night before. If they got hit in the mornings, we went there in the afternoons; if they’re hit in the afternoons, we flew in that morning. I guess we were on a Viet Cong timetable. Explosions would still occur off base, usually land mines.”
Mary was never at a raid camp, fire support base, or LZ that received incoming during her visits. Qui Nhon, however, was a different story. Mary said, “The second week at Qui Nhon a unit leader ran in and said, ‘We’re on Red Alert, put on your flak vests, helmets, and pull a mattress over your heads. She walked out the door then we heard her yell, ‘Oh, my God!’ Light travels faster than sound, so she saw the ammo dump go up in a big ball of fire, then the sound hit us. The walls of our hooch moved with the shock wave to the ends of the nails. Then mortar rounds started hitting around our hooch. After the alert one of our drivers told us he couldn’t believe we were safe, that the mortar rounds danced all around our hooch but never hit us.”
Her posting at Qui Nhon lasted five months. During another attack, their Red Cross rec room took a direct hit; all personnel had just left, nobody was hurt.
Mary’s next port-of-call was actually a port, the huge anchorage called Cam Ranh Bay. “Cam Ranh was very active,” she recalled. “We had a nice rec center and went on missions to places like Tuy Hoa. Plus, we had new recruits coming in all the time. They couldn’t believe the first thing they saw in Vietnam was round-eyed women, it made them feel good, boosted morale. Those young boys thought ‘Maybe I will make it home.’ By that time I had come to hate war.”
For her last three months in Vietnam, Mary was in the Mekong Delta. “My base was Binh Thuy,” she said. “The Mekong Delta witnessed a lot of war but by 1971 most of our boys were gone. My old roommate, Ilene, met up with me again in the Delta. One day we flew on a chopper near the Cambodian border. Well, Ilene and I had been to the village in that area before, but our chopper pilots were new and they flew right by a mountain that we recognized. We knew the chopper was in Cambodia. The pilots had been given wrong coordinates. We got out of there real fast!”
On another mission Mary dozed off in the chopper as one of the door gunners cleared his machine gun. “That sounds a little crazy trying to sleep with a machine gun going off, but you get use to the noise after being in Nam for so long. Well, a spent shell casing struck my leg and I thought I’d been wounded. I nearly jumped out of my skin. Scared me to death!”
Her final thoughts on the Delta: “I know our soldiers hated the Delta but I loved it. By 1971 we were allowed to go off base into the local economy, to eat, shop. We were on a boat once, minus one of the crew because he was on leave. He came back a week later and was killed on the same boat. Yeah, the war still raged, but Ilene and I did more traveling in the Delta than anywhere else.”
On our soldiers: “We quickly learned that the military had all kinds of people. Good guys, bad guys, ones that used drugs, others that drank, and boys that stayed in church. I came home with a lot of respect for the people in a country at war. Most Americans haven’t experienced that, gunfire every night in your neighborhood, explosions, death all around you. I came to love the Vietnamese people; that year in Nam directed the rest of my life.”
Mary Atkinson Robeck continued to serve: She helped the Vietnamese boat people by joining the Peace Corps in the West Indies, recruited for the Peace Corps in Philadelphia, ended up in Indonesia and Singapore to process thousands of Vietnamese refugees for passage to the U.S., and taught them English to help their transition. She met her future husband in Indonesia, a case worker; they flew home, got married, and flew back to Indonesia. Mary worked at a Boston Naval hospital for the Red Cross and another military hospital in Michigan, coordinated blood drives, served as a 2nd Lt. in the National Guard, and finally had her two children at the age of 40 and 42.
“My husband and I have had a full life,” she said. Asked if they enjoy retirement, Mary replied, “We’re not retired. I just took a new job with Habitat for Humanity as programs manager for restores, accumulating building supplies, tubs, things like that. My husband drives a school bus and on the weekends is an emergency driver for a mental health center in Atlanta.”
After a short pause, Mary reflected on Vietnam: “You know, when the guys left Vietnam they were happy. I got on the plane home and cried. I didn’t want to leave, and I’d go back to do it again.”
The words on the back of her Donut Dolly T-shirt: A touch of home, in a combat zone; A smiling face, at a bleak firebase; The illusion of calm, in Vietnam.
Pete Mecca is a Vietnam veteran, columnist and freelance writer. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or aveteransstory.us.