In our 54th edition of the Donut Dollie Detail, Dorothy tells that a high school friend brought the SRAO program to her attention, how on one programming run she learned after the fact that the Donut Dollies and the Huey crew had been flying at a dangerously high altitude and that she still gets asked to do speaking engagements to share her experiences of serving in Vietnam.
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Please meet Red Cross Donut Dollie Dorothy White Patterson…
What prompted you to join the SRAO (Supplemental Recreation Activities Overseas) program and want to go to Vietnam?
I was visiting with one of my best friends from high school, Jan Petersen, and she told me she had just signed up with the Red Cross to go to Vietnam. I thought it sounded really interesting, so I decided to look into it. At the time, I was teaching in Pontiac, Illinois and was headed for a conference in St. Louis, which happened to be the headquarters of the Red Cross for our region, so I got in touch with them while I was there. They sent the paperwork to my hotel, I filled it out and the rest is history!
When and where were you stationed in Vietnam? Did you go by a nickname?
I was in Cam Ranh from July, 1967 – January, 1968 and I was there for the Tet Offensive. I was at An Khe from January, 1968 until I came home in July, 1968. While at An Khe, I spent one week TDY (temporary duty assignment) in Nha Trang. I did go by the nickname of Dot.
What was a routine day like in Vietnam?
At Cam Ranh we had two recreation centers, we divided our time between the two bases, manning a center in each area. Cam Ranh was a supply base with transportation units and a supply depot where goods were unloaded, stored, and delivered around the country where needed. Cam Ranh Bay had beautiful beaches, so a couple of us spent most of our free time at the enlisted men’s beach relaxing and visiting with the lifeguards. We spent our days putting together programs (games) that we could take with us on our runs. We did lots of socializing activities outside the center —- cookouts, picnics, playing cards, singing around a little campfire.
The other recreation center we served was north of Cam Ranh Airbase, which was called a replacement center, because the newly arrived men were housed there until they were assigned a location in-country. Right after the Tet Offensive, many guys were sent to Vietnam. All the housing facilities at the replacement center were filled – and it was days or even weeks before many of them were given an in-country assignment. They were given no supplies (toothpaste, brushes, soap, etc) because they hadn’t been given a permanent assignment, so we helped the guys by providing them some of the basics. We may have raided the PX!
While the men were housed at the replacement center, they hung out at our recreation center and enjoyed coffee, Kool-Aid and the company of the Donut Dollies. It was almost identical to our center at the main base with tables for card playing, pool tables and areas for relaxing. We also would fly out once a week to Da Lat, and then by boat out to an island (can’t remember the name of it) that housed some members of the Vietnam Navy, as well as some of our Navy men who were stationed there to train them.
While at An Khe, we made many, many helicopter trips to fire support bases for mail runs, hot meal runs, as well as our “program” runs. An Khe was the base for the 1st Cav and the 173rd Airborne, but when I arrived there most of the Cav had moved up north to be closer to the action and the 173rd had taken over the base. There were still all the chopper hangers and bunkers, but just a few choppers remained.
At An Khe our center was called “The Happy Hooch”. My friend Jan and I became very close with the 173rd LRRPs (Long-range reconnaissance patrol). They were so anxious to sit around, visit and relax before leaving on their very dangerous missions.
Did you ever have any “close calls” either on base or in any vehicles?
There were never any major “close calls” that we were aware of. We did get stranded one night at a fire-support base because bad weather set in and our helicopter could not take off. It was quite an experience — they had to empty an entire barrack for the two of us Donut Dollies, and give us an escort to go to and from the latrine. Another time we were in a Jeep (leaving An Khe to drive over a mountain to Qui Nhon) and had to wear our helmets and flak jackets for the one and only time we were there. We found out that a convoy had been attacked the previous day and some Korean officers had been killed. Luckily no incident occurred on our trip! Also, one time we were returning to Cam Ranh in a Huey and we were freezing. The guys in the chopper gave us their coats to wrap up in. When we landed we heard the pilot tell someone on the ground that it was a good thing we were too naive to know they were flying at a dangerously high altitude, because there was ground fire below us.
Were you ever injured while in Vietnam?
While at An Khe, I did fall and break my elbow, but it wasn’t war related! The Vietnamese had been digging a ditch right outside the back door of The Happy Hooch, our recreation center, for weeks. One night we were locking up and when I was leaving the center, unbeknownst to me the workers had gotten a spurt of energy that day and finished the ditch. I tripped over a hill of dirt that was running the length of the ditch and broke my elbow stopping my fall. I wore a cast for a few weeks, but everything turned out fine.
What was it like to visit the soldiers in the hospitals?
We really did not visit soldiers in hospitals, except for a few men we personally knew who were hospitalized with malaria or some other illness.
How was the transition returning home to the United States?
I arrived home in late July, 1968 and returned to my teaching position by mid-August, so I really didn’t have any transition problems. I gave many, many presentations to various organizations in my local area about my experiences in Vietnam and was also asked to give a talk just a couple of years ago to a group studying Vietnam. In fact, I have been called upon to give two talks in the past year.
What would you like people to remember and understand most about the women who served?
That we were hard-working and sincere individuals. We were anxious to do our part to help the morale of the troops and make life a bit easier for them.
How do you feel Veterans think of your time having served with them? Have any Veterans expressed their feelings to you directly?
I have seen many comments on Facebook and other places from Veterans who expressed their gratitude for the Donut Dollies being there. I have also received many personal expressions of gratitude.
What are your fondest or most interesting memories of your time serving in Vietnam?
1) The expressions on the faces of men at fire support bases when we got off the chopper.
2) The many hours spent visiting with the men in our recreation centers, which was a place that allowed them to air their fears and anxieties.
3) Seeing the Bob Hope Show and seeing how much the troops enjoyed their time watching him.
4) What a beautiful country it was!
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I have known Dorothy White Patterson for forty-some years yet never really heard this much about her experience as a Donut Dollie. This was very fascinating to read. I am so proud of her. What an incredible period of time and she was a part of it. I really appreciate being able to read this.
Oak Park, IL.
Thank you for your Service and Welcome Home!
This was an amazing article! Dorothy is my Aunt. She doesn’t share too often, mostly because I don’t ask, but this is a different tale of who she is and I thank you for writing it and continuing to tell the story of the women that served. Thank You, Aunt Dorothy, for your service.
My husband was in Vietnam (an MP) in Saigon the year after I returned home. We met when he returned home, and got married a couple years later. December, 2019 we returned to Vietnam together on a Military history tour. It was a fantastic experience, and brought back many memories for both of us.
Thank you, so much, Dorothy. I knew you were in the Red Cross. It’s so wonderful to know about your experiences.