Red Cross Services in Vietnam

The American Red Cross was one of several civilian agencies working in-country during the Vietnam War.  The agency operated three separate programs: SMI (Service to Military Installations), SMH (Service to Military Hospitals) and SRAO (Supplemental Recreational Activities Overseas).  The first Red Cross field director (SMI) arrived in South Vietnam in February 1962 and the last departed in 1973, continuing service to Vietnam from Bangkok, Thailand.

Field Directors

The field directors and assistant field directors of SMI were assigned to military bases and units throughout South Vietnam.  They provided counseling and assistance to service personnel about personal and family problems, help in emergency situations and aid with communications to and from home.  They also assisted with emergency funds and transportation.  No cell phones or laptops in Vietnam!  These men and in later years, a few women, provided notifications about births, deaths, serious illnesses, and other emergencies.  Many SMI staff had prior military service enabling them to navigate military channels more efficiently.  More than 200 SMI personnel operated 67 field stations in South Vietnam during the peak year of 1969.

SMH employees included field directors, caseworkers, and recreation workers.  Mostly women, they were assigned to military hospitals and the hospital ships USS Sanctuary and Repose.  Field directors worked much as their SMI counterparts and caseworkers offered counseling services and patient assistance.  The recreation workers organized activities for convalescing patients and wrote letters for those unable to do so.   SMH staff came to Vietnam with a college degree and prior Red Cross experience.  A tour with SMH was considered a career path within Red Cross.  Women’s uniforms varied by location and included fatigues as well as the recognizable light blue dresses.

Donut Dollies

Already operating in Korea and Europe, SRAO was an extension of the WWII Clubmobile program.  Thus, they carried forward the nickname, “Donut Dollies,” although donuts were not served in Vietnam.  This job was for single women, ages 21 to 27, with a college degree.  It began with two weeks of training in Washington D.C followed by another week in Saigon. Then the women were assigned to various military units throughout South Vietnam.  They would be transferred to a different unit at least once during their one-year tour.  The assigned unit patch was worn proudly on the highly visible light blue dress which was their uniform.

Larger locations included recreation centers which provided an off-duty getaway for military personnel.  Those centers offered coffee, Kool-Aid, paperback libraries, ping-pong tables, cards, and a variety of fun activities to engage the men and provide some relaxation.   A team of Donut Dollies always staffed the center.

The women also created one-hour participation type recreation programs, many based on popular quiz shows, which could be transported to field units.  Popular themes were used as the basis for the programs – topics that would appeal to young men in their late teens and early twenties such as sports, vehicles, and entertainment.  The Red Cross “girls” brought the programs to several units each day including firebases and landing zones.  They travelled by jeep, truck, boat and primarily by helicopter.  Through the participation programs, the men became involved, briefly forgot their surroundings, had some laughs, and were reminded of home.   The SRAO Vietnam program began in 1965 at the request of the military and ended in 1972.  During that time, 627 women participated and traveling teams logged over 2,125,000 air miles.

The Red Cross Memorial Plaque

Five Red Cross workers lost their lives in Vietnam, two were field directors (SMI) and three were SRAO.  Their names do not appear on the Wall because they were civilians.  They are remembered on a marble plaque in the beautiful garden at the Red Cross Headquarters in Washington D.C.

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