In 1917, as the United States entered World War I, the American Red Cross quickly emerged as the largest social welfare agency throughout Minnesota and across the nation. The community quickly embraced the Red Cross mission to prevent and alleviate human suffering in the face of emergencies by mobilizing the power of volunteers and the generosity of donors and by the end of the war, 20 percent of all Minnesotans had joined the organization.
This year, as we celebrate a century of service, the American Red Cross Minnesota Region invites individuals and organizations to join us as we prepare for whatever may come in the next 100 years. Click here to learn more about our Centennial Year.
During the past century, we have served millions of people. Through disaster services, we have provided immediate, emergency housing, food, clothing, medical supplies, and essential household items to victims of the more than 600 disasters that occur in the Minnesota Region annually. From preparedness education and health and safety programs to ensuring the daily demand for blood is met, we have worked vigilantly to prepare our communities with the tools and resources that save lives before urgent situations happen. We have supported our military heroes and their families before, during and after deployment and have reconnected families separated by conflict around the globe.
Today, 100 years since our inception, the American Red Cross Minnesota Region stands ready 24 hours a day, 365 days a year with volunteers and staff on standby to bring comfort, care and relief to victims of disasters or critical emergencies, work as health and safety trainers, and meet demand for area blood supplies.
During World War One, people in Minnesota made a major contribution to The Great War effort. Minnesota women were among them. At home, they did many things to help, such as darn socks, make bandages, pack comfort kits, and offer first aid classes. More than 120 of them chose to be close to the front lines in Europe. Their names included Ruby, Marion, Grace, Marguerite, Julia, Aileen, Verna, Leila, Mary, Alice, Helen, Dee, and Rose. Their jobs were many, such as canteener, secretary, nurse, supply-truck driver, and social worker. They, like the men they helped, held steadfast.
As part of ongoing remembrances during the war’s centenary years through 2018, we share below an exceprt from “Awfully Busy These Days: Red Cross Women in France During World War I” by Nancy O’Brien Wagner and published in the Minnesota History Magazine, Spring 2012.
Late train arrivals were just one of many wartime annoyances. Flies, lice, fleas, hives, chilblains–nearly every woman complained of these. Food shortages, food and coal rationing, and high prices were popular topics, too. Marion Backus wrote: “Between cooties, fleas, and hives I am having an interesting time. The last two bother me most…the only things I miss are pie and cake. When I get home am going to eat a dozen pies right straight at one lick, and then a strawberry short cake.”
Alice O’Brien dismissed these discomforts with suspiciously adamant protests.
All your letters carry messages of Sympathy such as–I must be working so hard–not enough food–not enough sleep–feet must be sore, etc. etc. I am sorry if my letters have given you that impression because it is not a true one. Of course we do work hard but we love it and nothing is as healthy as hard work. We have fine beds, and I assure you we use them a lot. I have never been better in my life–never–and I have everything I need.
Everything but intact socks, it appears. In July Alice wrote, “Mugs [Marguerite Davis] came into the room last night and said that she realized, for the first time, how far we were from home. You bet we’re a long way off when I started darning.” She went on to request that socks be sent from St. Paul. They arrived four months later, in the hands of Grace Mary Bell, an acquaintance who had signed on as a canteener. She described the meeting for Alice’s parents: “I delivered safely into her hands sundry articles at which point she devoutly remarked ‘Thank the Lord, I can stop darning!'”
Cases of homesicknesses developed, too, though few would admit it. Dee Smith wrote from Paris with insightful candor:
The whole idea here is anything to keep the morale of the men as high as possible, & everyone is so proud of them that no one begrudges them a good time. It is fine for the girls, too, tho no one ever seems to think they may get lonely and discouraged. I have met an occasional one who was frankly homesick, & don’t doubt there are others who are, but keep it to themselves. I think I might be if I didn’t have lots of work, but I haven’t time to think of being homesick. I sometimes even forget there is a war.
Alone in a foreign land, fighting a war with an uncertain outcome, these women were determined not to let their comrades or their country down. Helen Scriver summed up these attitudes: “My conclusions are always the same, namely if others can speak this language, I can, if the rest can life in these houses, so can I and if the rest can hold their jobs, I must be able to hold mine. It is a good philosophy.”
Helen’s steadfast determination was common, and the volunteers’ unflinching efforts made the work of the American Red Cross possible. For example, nurse Marion Backus was transferred to Evacuation Hospital #110 in Villers-Daucourt in September 1918. After a long day of travel, she went on duty that night and stayed on for two weeks. “If anybody had told me that I could take care of more than two ether patients before I came over here I would have laughed and thought them joking. But now I can watch 45 in one ward, 36 in the next and never wink an eye.”
In the fall of 1918, Marguerite Davis and Alice O’Brien watched as train after train of men unloaded at their camp near Chantilly. “We are awfully busy these days,” Alice wrote home. On September 7, their friend Doris Kellogg reported that, with just three other women, they served 1,157 meals in their canteen in three-and-a-half hours; on September 18, they dished up 1,300 meals, and on October 20, more than 1,600.
Good humor, resourcefulness, and flexibility were invaluable traits for Red Cross volunteers. When asked, these women dropped their work and jumped to do whatever was needed. Margaret MacLaren enlisted as a hospital worker, then began running a canteen. Soon, she was driving a supply truck. Minneapolitan Winifred Swift volunteered as a physiological chemist at Red Cross Hospital #2 in Paris, helping to research the nature and treatment of gas gangrene. “During the heavy work following the offensive in spring 1918 and summer, research work was abandoned to give more hands for the task of caring for the wounded…all spare moments were given to relieve the nurses of such work as might be done by those less trained.”
To read the full article, click here. To learn more about the American Red Cross during World War I, click here.
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.
In 1944, Marian Krinke gave up a budding career as a business home economist to serve her country during the Second World War. Her choice took her far from her small-town roots in Lamberton, Minnesota.
“I was a bit of a patriot and wanted to serve the Red Cross because it was an honest and dependable organization where my skills would be used to help soldiers. My family was surprised at first, then concerned about the danger I might face. But I was raised to be independent.”
In September that year, Krinke, four other Red Cross workers, and hundreds of military staff of the 162nd General Hospital Unit sailed to England aboard a refitted luxury liner that was anything but luxurious with two meals a day and rationed water.
The unit set up a hospital at Nocton Hall in Lincolnshire, England where Krinke served as an American Red Cross Staff Aide between 1944 and 1946. Her job was to provide social work services and to organize recreational activities that would help rehabilitate soldiers who were patients at the hospital.
“They were all so young, so very young, just in their early twenties. My Red Cross teammates and I would work to connect with the soldiers who were recovering by learning things about their lives, later asking about it. The soldiers enjoyed playing Chinese checkers and other games. They sang, chatted, and made handicrafts such as leather billfolds and hooked rugs. It was hard work with few materials, but rewarding.”
Krinke shared one room with the four other Red Cross aides at Nocton Hall. She traveled a bit in her free time and was even invited to tea by Queen Elizabeth. She laughs as she remembers learning to properly curtsy and shake hands. That invitation is still framed at her home along with her Red Cross dog tags and certificates. But her eyes well up with tears as she remembers one particular soldier.
“There was a young man in the psychiatric ward who had seen such terrible, terrible things that he couldn’t speak, and he just sat comatose for hours in a corner, staring into space. One night one of my team mates and I were walking through the darkening wards when we saw him just sitting quietly as usual. Eleanor suggested we try one more time to reach him. We walked up to him and I put my hand on his shoulder. Soldier, is there anything I can get for you? I asked. He slowly looked up at me and said distinctly, I would like a fresh egg.”
“We were shocked. We told him to just wait. We pedaled our bicycles like mad into the village and found eggs. We made scrambled eggs and toast for him. With that simple request the door reopened and he began to speak once more.”
Krinke returned to the United States in February 1946 and tried to take up life where it left off. Just as for the soldiers she served, it wasn’t easy. “I enjoyed having bananas, fresh milk, and eggs, things which were almost unavailable where I had served. People didn’t often ask questions about what I’d done. I had to get on with life quickly.”
Today at 98, Krinke is an active volunteer in her retirement community. As she shares her life story, Krinke strokes the bright red liner of her Red Cross coat, a cherished memento covered with patches given to her by the patients for whom she cared, patches representing the many military units they served.
“During my time with the Red Cross, I learned lessons that have been very important to me. It was there I learned care and compassion, to be a better listener and to work as a team player. I learned to enjoy people of many cultures people, and the value of give and take.”
Krinke will share her stories on Tuesday, November 12, 2013, at 1:30 PM, at the American Red Cross Northern Minnesota Region headquarters in Minneapolis. Her talk is open to the public. Her coat and other historic mementos will be on view.
Marian Krinke has joined the American Red Cross Legacy Society after naming the humanitarian organization as a beneficiary of her estate. Story and photos by Judy Hanne-Gonzalez/American Red Cross. Click here to learn more about American Red Cross history.