We return to our research on the Hampton Roads Port of Embarkation (HRPE) with the American Red Cross. The Red Cross played a vital role in maintaining morale and the mental health of those in the military, especially those abroad. During World War II, the Red Cross was the only civilian service organization authorized to work with overseas military personnel, and in fact began providing aid to civilian victims of the war in Europe before the US entered the war in 1941. Red Cross members were a mix of volunteers and employees, who served both at home and abroad. The Red Cross provided supplies, aid, and refreshments to all those who needed it. Many volunteers signed up to be nurses aids through the Red Cross. However, during WWII the Red Cross was probably most famous for their free donuts, to the point that many volunteers were referred to as ‘Donut Dollies’!
Like many organizations at the time, the American Red Cross held applicants to a very high standard. Female volunteers had to be college graduates, at least 25 years of age, have excellent reference letters and pass physical examinations. The application standards were so high, only 1 in 6 applicants were accepted. After accepting the volunteer position, women were then sent for training in Washington D.C. before being assigned a position on the Homefront or abroad.
Those who passed through HRPE to serve overseas might be going to work at Red Cross Service Clubs. At the height of the war there were 2000 Service clubs abroad, including the Mobile Club Units, which were often military trucks or English public buses that had been modified to serve hot food. These trucks would be driven just behind the front lines, to serve soldiers who needed it most, operated only by three American Red Cross women and a local driver. The Mobile Clubs were famous for the “Donut Dollies” (the Red Cross women volunteers) serving fresh donuts and coffee. Over the entirety of WWII the American Red Cross served 163 million cups of coffee and 254 million doughnuts. If available, the “Donut Dollies” might also distribute newspapers, cigarettes, and gum. Occasionally volunteers would fit a radio, phonograph, or even a small piano in the Mobile Club Unit, to give the soldiers a bit of entertainment and reminder of home.
Many Red Cross volunteers were stationed at HRPE. Some served as nurses’ aids, who not only helped to treat and lift the spirits of injured soldiers, but they also relieved many overburdened nurses in both civilian and military hospitals.
Others worked to keep up morale for those at HRPE and abroad. The American Red Cross often made ‘ditty bags’ for those serving overseas–small bags filled with comforts from home that might not be available overseas and on the front lines. Candy bars, paperback novels, handkerchiefs, sewing kits, and extra boot laces were common inclusions. The Red Cross also hosted dinners and events at HRPE, to help keep up morale. This allowed many soldiers to remember the pleasures of civilian life and stay motivated in their work.
At the end of the war, many soldiers returning home needed help adjusting back to civilian life. At every step of the way, the Red Cross was there. They provided cheer to those patiently waiting for their turn to return home. Volunteers were stationed at high traffic train stations and ports to help returning service members find their next stop on the way home. They aided and nursed injured soldiers on their journey to state-side hospitals. And others were there to answer questions about the GI bill, benefits, and veteran’s hospitals. The American Red Cross was there to help service members every step of the way.
To learn more about how the American Red Cross aided in World War II, check out the sources below. You can also explore the Mariners’ Museum online collection for more images of Red Cross volunteers at HRPE.