World War II: “Donut Dollies” & the American Red Cross

Are you familiar with the Donut Dollies and the important role they played during World War II? Donut Dollies was the popular term used to refer to the American Red Cross women who volunteered to work overseas in mobile service clubs called clubmobiles. These Red Cross volunteers served to provide food, entertainment and a bit of a connection to home to servicemen stationed in Great Britain and those on many European battlefronts.

Once the attack on Pearl Harbor occurred on December 7, 1941, the American Red Cross (ARC) rapidly mobilized in order to fulfill the mandate of its 1905 congressional charter requiring that they supply voluntary aid to the sick and wounded of armies in time of war and to serve as a source of communication between the civilians of the United States and their military. The War Department decreed that the Red Cross would be the only civilian service organization permitted to work with overseas military personnel. Realizing that building and maintaining troop morale was an important component of victory, military leaders and the War Department assigned much of the responsibility for morale of the troops to the ARC, beginning during the early phases of troop buildup. Stateside, civilians volunteered to work in canteens and at transportation hubs, providing food and entertainment to the GIs who were in training or travelling. As servicemen started to go overseas, the need for volunteers escalated and the Red Cross created a sophisticated campaign to recruit women to serve in this role

The Red Cross had very high standards for their female volunteers, standards which were higher than those of the military. Applicants had to be college graduates, at least 25 years of age, have stellar reference letters, pass physical examinations and have an outstanding personality as demonstrated at personal interviews. With the rigorous selection process only one in six applicants made the cut.

Image: Donut Dollie at work - serving doughnuts from a club mobile
Donut Dollie” at work – serving doughnuts from a club mobile

Once accepted, the new volunteers were sent to Washington, D.C. to the American Red Cross training program located on the campus of American University. There the volunteers received multiple immunizations, were fitted for Red Cross uniforms and underwent several weeks of basic training in the history, policies and procedures of the ARC and the American military. There was considerable attention given to the appropriate way to wear the uniform, with ten pages of specific instructions in the Red Cross uniform manual – collars always to be pinned, no earrings, hair ornaments, “brilliant nail polish” or “excessive use of cosmetics.” After basic training some recruits received additional training in programs emphasizing such things as recreation or administration. Once training was completed the volunteers worked locally while awaiting their overseas orders.

Many servicemen were stationed in Great Britain either permanently or prior to being shipped to the European Theater. One necessity for troop morale was the opportunity to leave base and enjoy simple civilian pleasures. To prevent the soldiers from overwhelming local British facilities and to curtail disciplinary problems, the Red Cross created for the American servicemen on leave a massive network of hotels and recreation clubs. One of the best examples and most famous was the Rainbow Corner near Piccadilly Circus in London. Many GIs and airmen flooded this site to spend a few days of rest and recreation

Photo of Rainbow Corner American Red Cross Club
Rainbow Corner American Red Cross Club

However, there were many times when servicemen could not go to these permanent clubs and the mobile service club served as a way to reach servicemen in airfields, camps and other theaters of war. The idea of a mobile service club, or clubmobile, was provided by Harvey D. Gibson, a retired U.S. Army colonel, prominent New York banker and the American Red Cross Commissioner to Great Britain. Clubmobiles travelled throughout Great Britain and Europe between late 1942 until 1946.

Most clubmobiles were single decker English Green Line buses fitted with coffee and doughnut making equipment. The clubmobiles also carried chewing gum, cigarettes, magazines and newspapers, a phonograph with loudspeakers and records. A lounge in the back of the bus provided a place to sit and talk. The buses were driven by British drivers. Perhaps most importantly, each clubmobile carried three American Red Cross women volunteers. Popularly referred to as “donut dollies” since one of their biggest tasks was making and serving doughnuts to the servicemen, these volunteers were the actual stars of the show. They provided a little touch of home to many a home sick GI.

Piccadilly Circus, London during World War II
Piccadilly Circus, London during World War II

Doughnuts dominated the activities of the clubmobilers. Next to the women themselves, the doughnuts and the coffee served with them were among the GI’s most beloved symbols of home and they also became the trademark of the wartime Red Cross. The Doughnut Corporation of America loaned the Red Cross 468 doughnut machines, each which could turn out 48 dozen each hour. As time went on, these proved inadequate in keeping up with the demands of the soldiers and the Red Cross set up central bakeries to supply the majority of the doughnuts served to the GIs. Just how many doughnuts are we talking about? A report for December 1944 showed that 205 Red Cross women in Great Britain served 4,659,728 doughnuts to the troops.

Red Cross clubmobiles did not just serve in Great Britain. After the invasion of Normandy in June 1944, ten groups of clubmobilers with eight converted GMC trucks per group were sent into France. These clubmobiles, driven and staffed by teams of three American women, traveled with the rear echelon of the Army, receiving their orders from the Army. The women were stationed in nearby towns and would drive to different bases. There they performed the same duties they had while in Great Britain – making and serving doughnuts and coffee, serving snacks, talking with servicemen, playing music and delivering a little slice of home. The clubmobilers served throughout France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg until VE Day in 1945 and continued to service in post war Great Britain and the Army of Occupation in Germany until 1946.

In addition to the Red Cross clubs and clubmobiles, the Red Cross served many other roles during World War II. Beginning with the invasion of China by Japan in 1937 and then the subsequent invasions of various European countries by Hitler’s armies, the International Red Cross became the primary provider of relief supplies for civilian victims. The American Red Cross played a leading role in this international effort. The U.S. government responded to these hostilities by beginning preparations for possible American involvement in the wars in Europe and Asia. At the request of the government, in early 1941 the ARC began their Blood Donor Service in order to produce plasma for the armed forces

On the homefront millions of Red Cross volunteers served in the war effort by providing aid and comfort to military personnel and their families, serving in hospitals experiencing severe staffing shortages, providing first aid and water safety training, conducting scrap drives, organizing victory gardens, initiating educational programs in-home nutrition and producing emergency supplies for victims of war. The ARC also recruited thousands of nurses to serve in the Army and Navy Nurses Corps.

Image: American Red Cross Service Club, Edinburgh, Scotland during World War II
American Red Cross Service Club

The ARC served American prisoners of war by being a conduit for communication between the prisoners and their families and by providing essential care packages to the prisoners, as well as the victims of several German concentration camps, though many captors thwarted these efforts.

Red Cross war time activity reached its peak in 1945, at which time 7.5 million volunteers and 39,000 paid staff were supporting the war effort. By the time of the end of the war, the American public had contributed over $784 million in support of Red Cross activities.

Red Cross World War II Statistics
Over the course of the war years, 86 Red Cross workers-52 women and 34 men-lost their lives as the result of their wartime service. Statistics are given in the table below.

Total contributions received during war years$784,992,995
Greatest number of chapters (1943 and 1944)3,757
Greatest number of adult members (1945)36,645,333
Greatest number of Junior Red Cross members (1945)19,905,400
Greatest number of volunteers (1945)7,500,700
Greatest number of paid staff (1945)39,032
Number of Red Cross certified nurses in service with the military71,000
Number of service personnel receiving Red Cross aid16,113,000
Messages made between servicemen and families42,000,000
Families aided by the Home Service1,700,000
Tons of supplies shipped overseas300,460
Pints of blood collected for military use13,400,000
Number of blood donors6,600,000
Number of foreign countries in which Red Cross operated50+
American Red Cross war casualties – male34
American Red Cross war casualties – female52
Image: Dr. Carolyn Apple

Carolyn Apple Author

Dr. Carolyn Apple was a retired Dover-area emergency medicine physician and Delaware Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs volunteer.

The images in this display were selected from the William D. Willis World War II Photographic Collection, one of the permanent collections preserved by the Division of Historical and Cultural Affairs. Mr. Willis of Dover, Del. served as a photographic technician with the Army Air Force during the Second World War.

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