Palmetto Historical Park's Carnegie Library hosts former 'Doughnut Dollies' Saturday

vmannix@bradenton.comJanuary 31, 2014 

PALMETTO

Living dangerously is not something folks associate with Rene Johnson and Susan McLean, women living productive lives in their mid-60s.

Johnson is a recreation-social services worker living in Keystone Heights.

McLean is a reading specialist at Clearwater's Chi Chi Rodriguez Academy for at-risk children and a Safety Harbor resident.

Yet 40 years ago each spent a year in Vietnam during that protracted conflict as members of the Red Cross Supplemental Recreational Activities Overseas program. They were young, college-educated women who served as morale boosters for American troops.

They were better known as "Doughnut Dollies."

A misnomer, if you will.

"We did not serve donuts unless the mess sergeant happened to make them and gave them to us," said Johnson, 67. "That's a carryover from World War II and Korea."

"They didn't know what else to call us," said McLean, 65. "Being there, we gave the men something to look forward to."

The women will talk about their Vietnam experiences at 11 a.m. Saturday at the Palmetto Historical Park's Carnegie Library, 515 10th Ave. W. The program is part of Legacy of Valor Campaign, honoring service and sacrifice of veterans and their families.

Ostensibly, Johnson and McLean and the women who became Doughnut Dollies -- running recreation programs, visiting hospitals, bringing cheer to the troops -- were motivated by President John Kennedy's call for young people to serve their country.

"I was a Kennedy kid and I figured I was going to do something," said McLean, a graduate of Longwood University, Farmville, Va., and Indiana University.

Johnson's incentive was different.

Her father served in Vietnam in 1962-63 before it started heating up and the young Vietnam vets she dated while attending Florida State University were gung-ho on the expanding war.

"So I wanted to go to try and figure out why we were there because it didn't make any sense," Johnson said. "I was naive thinking I would be in a position to find out. But I did find I enjoyed providing momentary respite and laughter for some of the troops. I created a mission for myself, making a difference in the lives of not all, but some men."

Occasionally it got dicey during her tour beginning in April 1969.

Johnson's helicopter was shot at en route to a fire-support base.

"When we went there was no expected enemy activity, but some would be under attack and we didn't go until it was clear," she said.

McLean had several close calls during her tour beginning in June 1970."We were right in the middle of the shooting," she said. "When those rockets came in, it didn't say don't hit those civilians. When we were in Khe Sahn we were left in an ambulance during one attack. There we are, locked in a vehicle with a big red cross on it. Talk about a target? We had quite a few scary moments like that."

Four Doughnut Dollies did not survive Vietnam, including one who was murdered, according to McLean.

Whether her parents ever found out, it would have reinforced their base fears about their daughter's journey.

"My parents were so horrified I went they didn't tell most people," McLean said. "Back then when you disappeared for a year, you were having an illegitimate child and that's what most people thought. My parents would rather they think that than think I'd gone off to war."

Everybody back in Pearisburg, Va., found out different in an amusing way.

"I was on the 'Bob Hope Show' during one of his trips to Vietnam," McLean said. "Everybody watched and when they saw me they said, 'She doesn't look pregnant to us.'"

The women returned to Vietnam after their Doughnut Dolly time was done.

Johnson went back to run a recreation program with the U.S. Army Special Services.

McLean's trip back in 1998 was personal.

"I had (post traumatic stress disorder) for a few years and I had too many ghosts I had to face," she said. "I left me there so I needed to grieve and face my fears head on. I stayed three weeks and it was very therapeutic."

Alas, the Doughnut Dollies program is no more, having ended during the Vietnam War.

With computers, Skype, cellphones and so forth, modern-day troops have easier access to home. Plus female military personnel are present, too.

"There's no need for us," McLean said. "They can do things the guys in Vietnam could not do."

Yet the legacy of the Doughnut Dollies lingers.

"It was a term of endearment back then and guys who were there still think of us that way," Johnson said.

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