Story and photos by Lynette Nyman/American Red Cross
Additional reporting by Lanet Hane/American Red Cross
Lois Hamilton was a Red Cross caseworker at the Great Lakes Naval Hospital in 1967 when she decided to go to Vietnam at a hot time during the war. At the hospital, she saw “horrendous injuries,” but she also saw wounded warriors get well. “I loved my work,” she says over coffee and pastries at her home in Rochester, Minnesota. “It was my job to make the whole situation easier for them, to comfort them.”
By that time, and the time of her decision to go to Vietnam, she already had overseas experience. She’d left her hometown of Osseo, Minnesota, to serve with the Red Cross’s Supplemental Recreational Activities Overseas (SRAO) program in Korea in 1965. She was 22 years old. She knew Vietnam would be different, tougher and more serious. Still, her Korea experience was key: “Had I not gone to Korea, I’d never have gone to Vietnam,” she says.
When she told some of the patients at the Great Lakes Naval Hospital about her plans “they thought it was the dumbest thing they’d ever heard.” Yet, they were supportive and gave her some advice: “keep your head down,” they said. And she did, for 12 months of service with the Red Cross SRAO program in Vietnam in 1967 and 1968.
During that time, Lois and the other SRAO women, all recent college graduates with adventurous spirits, carried program bags: duffels stuffed with quizzes, flashcards and other games for boosting morale and combatting boredom among American troops in South Vietnam.
From their base in Saigon, the “Red Cross girls” (also nicknamed “Donut Dollies”) traveled to army units around the country. They went by bus or helicopter. A few made small talk with the helicopter pilots. But unlike some of the other girls, Lois did not make friends with the pilots because their risk of being killed was so high. “I think it was a protection sort of thing.”
Lois never doubted she would make it home. Not even in 1968 during the Tet Offensive, a series of communist military attacks on Saigon. Mostly, the time was “scary for my family because mail wasn’t going in or out.” Still, Lois heard gunfire on her street. Even closing shutters was a danger.
Later, Lois and the other SRAO workers were transferred to the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division headquarters at Camp Enari in Pleiku. There, they sought cover in a bunker that was just for the Red Cross girls. “I worried about some of them,” says Lois, who recalls crying only one time when a shower blew up and there was a fire, and then no hot water. It was a little thing, really, but the little things added up.
Sometimes during their service, Lois and the others wore flak jackets. “You girls should not be here,” a soldier said. “But if you are, then you should wear flak jackets.” They also had fatigues, combat boots and, for a short time, a revolver that a captain at Camp Enari gave them for times when they had to jump in the bunker.
But they were non-combatants. Most often Lois wore a dress, not a flak jacket. Her job was to bring a smile to a weary soldier’s face. “They had fun and I had fun, too,” she says. “Smiling was good.” For the most part, she felt like one of the guys. “The difference was that I was a civilian.”
In July 1968, her service was up and Lois did not extend. “I’m going home,” she said at the time to the others. “I was just ready to go home,” she says today.
Lois stayed with the Red Cross in various positions and retired decades later. She also became active in the Vietnamese refugee community in Rochester. “I felt I had a kinship because of Vietnam.” She went so far as to welcome three refugee children, with their own stories of survival and escape, into her home and later adopt them.
Reflecting on her Vietnam experience, Lois remembers her decision to go surprising her friends. “Lois would never do that,” some said. But she felt good about going. She would go again. “I’m the one who’s lucky.”
At its peak in 1969, 110 young women with the American Red Cross Supplemental Recreational Activities Overseas (SRAO) program reached an estimated 300,000 military members in Vietnam (source: redcross.org). Today, the Red Cross continues to provide emergency communications and other services to America’s armed forces. To learn more, click here.