Martha Spisso was one of the Donut Dollies in the 1960s, working with the Red Cross to provide a “touch of home” for soldiers in Vietnam. She now lives in Sun City Hilton Head. JOHN KEMP

When Martha Spisso attended Mississippi State College for Women, she thought she was going to be a teacher when she graduated, but a job fair got her attention and put her career plans on temporary hold.

“There weren’t a lot of opportunities for women at the time. There were nurses, teachers, secretarial. And I was looking for some adventure,” said the Jackson, Miss., native. 

The adventure she had is portrayed in “The Donut Dollies,” a documentary that will be shown at the Beaufort International Film Festival at 1:30 p.m. Feb. 26 at the USCB Center for the Arts.

The original Donut Dollies were American Red Cross women who provided a touch of home – often making and serving donuts – to servicemen overseas, when troops could not get to permanent clubs and recreation centers.

At the job fair, the Red Cross program was seeking young women to provide the same “touch of home” to troops serving in Vietnam. Servicemen could come to the Red Cross clubs and play cards, write letters home, listen to music, and play trivia games. When the troops could not get into the larger camps, the women were flown in Army helicopters to various outposts when it was deemed safe.

As Spisso examined the job fair display for ARC’s Supplemental Recreation Activities Overseas (SRAO), she felt the influence of both her mother and her elementary school principal.

“My elementary school principal was Miss Gilliland, a World War II WAC (Women’s Army Corps). I can see her to this day. She was spunky and fiery, and full of life, yet she seemed like a very disciplined, structured person as well,” said Spisso. “And then there was my mother. She was a self-made lady and she was a nurse. She was a professional and independent woman, and she wanted her daughter to be that way.”

She signed up. The SRAO post, she said, gave her an opportunity to do something different, something with purpose. Numerous interviews with Red Cross personnel were part of the preparations, including flying to the Atlanta offices.

“They wanted to make sure that I knew where I was going, and what I was getting into. And that I had the support of my family. They really emphasized that. My dad was not that fond of my going, but my mother would have gone with me,” Spisso said. “It helps to be naïve and young, think nothing will happen you, and invincible. I just wasn’t afraid.”

After receiving a series of vaccinations, Spisso was sent to the Red Cross headquarters in Washington, D.C., where she joined other women in learning more about their responsibilities.

“They told us what to expect. ‘You’re in a fishbowl and people are watching you all the time,’” she said.

The standards for the women were high. They had to be college graduates, able to provide recommendation letters and meet physical requirements. That fit in with Spisso’s major of health, physical education and recreation.

Having passed everything, she and her colleagues flew to San Francisco, and then took a flight out of Travis Air Force Base. After a short stop in Hawaii, the plane continued on to Saigon, where another presentation was given to the 20 women in that group.

“We had to get accustomed to the culture, time, what to expect when we go out to the different areas. It was quite extensive training,” she said.

Spisso’s first assignment was in 1967 in Phan Rang, base camp of the 101st Airborne Division.

“We had a rec center in Phan Rang with the 101st because that was where they were processed coming into the country and leaving. They had time on their hands waiting, so they had time to play cards, play games, listen to music, write letters,” said Spisso. “It was the kind of things that kept their minds off the war, and it was a taste of home, knowing they weren’t going to be there forever, they hoped.”

Spisso’s first impressions when she arrived in Saigon were people riding their bicycles around, noisy, fast-paced, different, the language, and the standards were different from what she was used to in the States.

“Then I got out to the bases. I’d say it was a good thing I was a summer camp counselor and camper. I knew what spare living was like,” she said. “We had a little Quonset hut. I was there with two other ladies, and we each had our own room. We had a little Vietnamese lady who came and did our laundry. We had officer status on the compound. It was comfortable. You learn what you can live without, that’s for sure. You’re down to the bare minimum.”

A typical day for the Donut Dollies began with getting up early to open the rec centers and get ready for the servicemen to come in. If the women were assigned to go somewhere as a mobile unit, they would be flown in Chinook and Huey helicopters, an effort coordinated between the field commanders and the Red Cross.

“It was pretty exciting ride to me. We’d go out to the forward areas. When they would come in from the combat areas, they would have a stand-down. That’s when they would get their mail, a nice hot meal and kind of have a little break from the battlefield. And that’s when they would schedule the Donut Dollies to come in and play those games,” said Spisso. “We’d have Jeopardy games, and trivia games, sports and area trivia. It gave them a chance to think about something other than the war. Someone said, ‘It was as if the war was in black and white, but when the Dollies came it suddenly turned to color.’ We were in those powder blue outfits that stood out like a sore thumb.”

One time when the 101st was conducting parachute training, Spisso and her colleagues went up in the plane and saw the troops make their jumps.

“When we came back down, we served refreshments, and that’s when they gave us our symbolic wings,” she said. “That was a pretty good adventure, too, something I would never have done if I had stayed in Mississippi.”

After four months in Phan Rang, Spisso and the other two women were moved to Qui Nho’n where an Army supply depot was based.

“We were in mobile homes there, and lived right on the beach,” she said. “We had an office-type of area where we made all our games, but then we traveled to other areas from Qui Nho’n.”

History happened while she was in Qui Nho’n.

“I was there during the Tet Offensive in 1968. We got up one morning and they said, ‘Oops, not going into the office today because they’re having some conflict coming in.’ We didn’t have any news, and we didn’t know how bad it was until we learned later,” Spisso said.

She recalled it being dusty, with bunkers and lots of sandbags around.

“They did have sort of a makeshift pavilion where they would serve the meals. I remember mostly everything was open air. No air conditioning. No comforts. It was sparse. We were there only a few hours, and sometimes you went to two or three areas a day. They would try to coordinate the transportation of moving the Dollies around. They tried to let you go when they felt like it was safe and not in any danger,” said Spisso. “Sometimes they would call ‘incoming’ and we’d have to go out to the bunker with our steel helmets and flak jackets. But sometimes it was all in a day’s work, and I just felt I was being protected when I had to do that.”

Spisso’s last assignment was in Xuan Loc, base camp of the Army’s 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment Division (Black Horse).

“In Xuan Loc, we lived with nurses, and we all had our own room in a compound. We went out with the club mobiles that carried all of our equipment and games. They looked forward to us coming,” she said. “When we arrived, some of the soldiers would hoot and holler, some were shy, and some would kind of look at you like, ‘Who are you and what are you doing here?’ They were all very respectful. Sometimes we would serve their meals, and the commanding officers really wanted to keep their morale up, even if it was for a little bit.”

Serving with the Red Cross in Vietnam helped Spisso satisfy some of her longing for adventure. The Donut Dollies were accorded two R&Rs – rest and recreation periods – away from their assignments.

“My first was in Bangkok. I had a high school friend whose husband was stationed over there. Our mothers had communicated, and she couldn’t wait for me to come visit,” she said. “Bangkok is a beautiful city. It was very nice and interesting, and here again another culture that you just have to learn how to appreciate and accept those differences.”

Her second R&R was in Hong Kong with plenty of people who spoke English, lots of stores and really good restaurants. Her return trip after one year in Vietnam included a stop in Japan.

“When I got back, I landed in San Francisco and spent a couple of days. I saw a couple of hippies and a lot of people against the war,” she said. “And I got on a Delta plane to fly back and those flight attendants – I hadn’t heard those Southern accents for a long time.”

Spisso got a job with the Red Cross in the hospital at Fort Jackson, Ga., continuing the same duties she had in Vietnam. After a year, she returned home to Mississippi to reassess what she was going to do.

“When you come home, you get grounded again, and get your roots and your bearing and make sound decisions,” said Spisso. “Then I ran into a friend who said she had just gotten a job teaching in Jacksonville and she said I should call them and ask about a job. I called and they said ‘When can you be here?’ and I said I can be there Friday. And that’s when I met David, my husband. We call it destiny.”

While Spisso said the hardest thing about being over there was not having a good hairdresser, she wouldn’t give up her year as a Donut Dollie for anything.

“I went all over the world and learned we’re all basically the same even though we have a lot of differences. It gave me a sense of patience and tolerance and understanding. It was quite a personal growth experience for me,” said Spisso. “I don’t know that we did anything really major. We talked, we listened, we represented their mothers and girlfriends. And we were just a reminder that there was another life than a war zone.”

Gwyneth J. Saunders is a veteran journalist and freelance writer living in Bluffton.