The Red Cross served in many areas during several wars. However, the donut dollies are a unique piece of history not many know about. Women volunteered to go across oceans to serve American soldiers on enemy lines. Bringing with them a sense of familiarity and a reminder of what the soldiers were fighting for.
The Donut Dollies from the Red Cross first came about during World War II. They drove refitted military trucks, called “club mobiles”, and traveled to the front lines to deliver entertainment and hope to the soldiers there. The women, recruited by the Red Cross, had to go through a strict selection process. Not just anyone could be a Donut Dollie. Applicants had to have a college degree, be between the ages of twenty-five to thirty-five, pass rigorous physical examinations, and demonstrate a quick wit and can-do attitude.
The Red Cross had several fixed sites where GIs could go for some rest and relaxation on their days off. However, not all soldiers could reach these clubs, so the Red Cross decided to bring the clubs to them via the club mobiles. Stocked with donut-making machines, magazines, cigarettes, gum, and other comforts of home the trucks traversed the war front, landing in camps with tired soldiers happy to see a friendly face.
During WWII the women did their best to lift the spirits of the war-weary GIs while facing danger themselves. One Donut Dollie, Jill Knappenberger recalls going to visit the 106th unit where she knew her twin brother Jack, was deployed. They had planned a party for that Saturday night. However, when they arrived they found that they had been cut off and surrounded by enemy soldiers. Jill also learned after arriving that her brother had been killed that morning trying to help some of his men. They stayed in the camp for eight days until they were rescued by an air unit and told to leave the club mobile behind. Even after being rescued, they were still in danger, Jill states “we didn’t know if we were going to get home.” Jill had found herself entangled in the “Battle of the Bulge” which she eventually was able to escape. However, before Jill left Germany she witnessed some of the greatest atrocities ever committed by man in a liberated concentration camp. Her camera still in working order, Jill took several photographs of the horrific sights in front of her. Jill eventually returned home to the states with memories and stories to tell. This is just one example of the hardships and sacrifices the Donut Dollies endured to help those overseas.
Not just serving during WWII, Donut Dollies also served in the Korean and Vietnam Wars. In Vietnam, there were no longer club mobiles and fewer donuts. Instead, these women were tasked with leading activities and games to try and cheer the soldiers up. One Donut Dollie who served during the Vietnam war remembers visiting a unit that had lost some of its members recently. She says “We were there to cheer them up. Our task seemed ludicrous. But, slowly, something began to happen. First, there were a few smiles, then, a couple of wisecracking jokes. Gradually the men got caught up in the program.” This is yet another example of how the Donut Dollies served a vital role during a time of great need and uncertainty.
The Donut Dollies displayed some of the core characteristics of Red Cross workers today. Determination, compassion, adaptability, they took what they had and made it work. Let’s take this Women’s History Month to remember and celebrate those women who were brave enough to answer the call. The women who donned the Red Cross and helped all those she could.
“How Red Cross Donut Dollies Supported U.S. Troops During Wartime.” Red Cross Chat, 5 June 2020, redcrosschat.org/2020/06/05/how-red-cross-donut-dollies-supported-u-s-troops-during-wartime/.
Apple, Carolyn. “World War II: ‘Donut Dollies’ & The American Red Cross.” Delaware Historical and Cultural Affairs, history.delaware.gov/ww-ii-donut-dollies-the-american-red-cross/. “Central Illinois World War II Stories: Jill Knappenberger, Champaign.” YouTube,