Tuesday, February 2, 2016
At His Side, the Red Cross Clubmobilers
American women served during World War II with the Army (WACS), Navy (WAVES), Coast Guard (SPARS), Marines, and as civilian pilots for the Army Air Force (WASPS). Those who came closest to the fighting served with the American Red Cross.
The Red Cross operated clubs in major cities, a famous one being Rainbow Corner in London. Since most troops were based too far away to make use of them, RC Commissioner Harvey Gibson put clubs on wheels in the form of the clubmobiles. The clubmobiles became a means of boosting morale among frontline troops in all theaters of the war. Three girls staffed each clubmobile. They served coffee and doughnuts, but to the men, seeing and talking with American girls meant more than the refreshments.
While they were referred to as girls, or doughnut girls, these were women at least twenty-five years old. They needed two years of college and work experience to qualify. A positive attitude, good social skills, resourcefulness, and bravery were necessary traits.
The women joked about needing college educations for their work. Their tasks were simple, but physically demanding. The Doughnut Corporation of America shipped a special doughnut mix to which the women added water. From the mixing bowl they transferred the dough into doughnut machines, which could churn out 48 dozen doughnuts an hour. The intricate machines often required maintenance after jarring rides through the countryside, and daily scrubbings were necessary. Red Cross doughnut centers sent them additional daily shipments, necessary for when their machines couldn’t keep up with the demand or broke down. Special “battle dress” trouser uniforms enabled the women to move about freely and modestly.
The clubmobile’s arrival at a base or camp sparked great interest among the soldiers and airmen. The women rarely had trouble finding someone eager to help them, whether washing cups, hauling pails of boiling water for coffee, or fixing blown fuses. The clubmobiles carried a phonograph, records, and a loudspeaker so they could broadcast their music. The men often wanted to dance with them and not a few women had to quickly learn to dance the jitterbug.
My research focused on the clubmobiles serving air bases in England and the army in France. In England, many of the women were quartered with British civilians. Their letters home often included requests for their families to send hard-to-find supplies. They got excited over packages containing Woolworth Five & Dime stuff like soap, a favorite lipstick, deodorant, and sheer stockings.
Each clubmobile had a list of about six bases to serve and perhaps a hospital. On a sprawling air base, they drove around to the control tower, the hangers, around the dispersal areas where the ground crews maintained the aircraft, wherever the men were working. If they were on base when a bomber group returned from a mission, they added their doughnuts to the mess sergeant’s Spam sandwiches to greet the combat crews.
After the D-Day invasion, clubmobiles followed the troops into France and across the continent, some going as far as Czechoslovakia and staying to serve the postwar occupation troops. Buzz bombs, the pilotless German rockets, became a nuisance after D-Day, both in England and on the continent. Also, “Bed Check Charlie” forced the clubmobilers to be back in camp by ten p.m.,before the Luftwaffe conducted nightly bombing runs to disrupt the invasion forces.
Whereas in England, professional drivers chauffeured the clubmobiles, on the continent the women did their own driving of the GMC 6x6½ ton trucks. They received training in maintenance, but usually found helpful GIs willing to change tires and check under the hood.
In France, their housing consisted of tents with latrines dug either by the men they were attached to or by themselves. After long days in the field, the women longed for a bath. The best they could do was a sponge bath and shampoo in their helmets. An opportunity to take a dip in a river was a real treat.
Occasionally they stayed in buildings recently occupied by Germans, sometimes still occupied by fleas or rats. Here they might enjoy running water and electricity.
Traveling in France, the women saw the full horror of war, beginning with coming ashore at the Normandy beaches. Still on the beaches were wrecked ships and military vehicles. Foxholes and shell craters created driving hazards. Away from the beaches, they found dead animals, sheared trees, even piles of dead Germans. The stench of death sickened them.
The clubmobiles closely followed the army, which brought them close to the front. Shells whistled overhead as the women chatted with the men they served. They were prohibited from turning their clubmobiles around on the roads because they might run over a land mine on the uncleared shoulders. In one instance, a GI accepted coffee and a doughnut, walked toward some trees to enjoy his snack, and stepped on a mine, dying instantly.
Some of the Red Cross women died during their service. One woman, taken ill, died in a hospital when it was shelled. Another died in a plane crash when the weather fogged in. Only the military nurses came as close to the fighting as the Red Cross women.
The men were living a life not of their choosing. The women of the Red Cross chose to share the hardships to serve them, at their side.
More photos may be viewed on my pinterest board: http://pinterest.com/terriwangard/red-cross-doughnut-girls-wwii/