CUMMINGTON, Mass. (AP) - “What is this Vietnam War?” That was the question burning in then-23-year-old Dorset Hoogland Anderson’s mind in her last year at St. Louis University in early 1968.
“I knew there was a war and there were people against it, that soldiers were going and coming back injured or dead,” said the Cummington resident. “But it seemed like no one really understood the situation, and why they had to go.”
Dorset decided she wanted to see for herself. After initially contacting a recruiting center, she was encouraged to visit the Red Cross - where she discovered the Donut Dollies.
Today, Dorset’s son, Norman Anderson II (a 1997 graduate of Williams College), has launched a labor of love to tell his mother’s story in a documentary planned for release in about a year.
“Ever since I heard about this adventure and the amazing thing my mom did, I’ve wanted to make this film,” said Norman, a Los Angeles resident who still considers the Berkshires home. “She has a scar on her leg that she got when she slipped and fell in Vietnam, and I didn’t know much about that until I asked. It dawned on me that this was an important and special story when I was young and thinking about being a filmmaker.”
The Donut Dollies, which have their roots in World War II and the Korean conflict, were brought into service in Vietnam to boost morale and bring a touch of home to American troops. Technically called the American Red Cross Supplemental Recreation Activities Overseas program, they got their name from serving refreshments during visits to bases and camps. The Donut Dollies program ended in 1972 with the departure of the last Donut Dollies from Vietnam.
“The first few months I was in Vietnam, I was struck by how few American women were there,” Dorset said. “By about four months into my tour, I was convinced that what we were doing was worth it for the men. We reminded them of home. We were silly and goofy, but at the same time we were serious.”
Dorset said the Dollies were flown by helicopter to bases and even “firebases” in the jungle.
“The soldiers would show us around their firebase, show us the weapons they used and they were so proud,” she remembers. “They would even clean up for us.”
They would often create their own skits, sometimes modeled after television trivia game shows and other times their own material.
“After, we would stay and talk with them, try to cheer them up,” she said. “We let them pour their hearts out to us - they might laugh, and they might cry.”
Asked if the experience was ever fun, Dorset said, “Yes, but sometimes we would come home at the end of the day and cry. Maybe we met someone who just couldn’t handle it, and sometimes it was hard to know if we were helping. There were hard times, but in the end we knew we had. I kept journals; it was helpful to write something about your day to get through it.”
Returning in December 1969 after more than a year in Vietnam, Dorset said she had answers to some - but not all - of her questions and curiosity about the war.
“I came back understanding what our men were going through. It was a rough life. We would cry with them and laugh with them,” she said. “Some wanted us to help them write letters home. I gained a tremendous respect for these soldiers and the military - some didn’t want to be there. You could tell they didn’t want to be there, but they knew they had to do what was required and do the best they could for their country.”
Norman, who later graduated from the University of Southern California Film School, now finds himself telling his mother’s story.
“I know it through the lens of my mother’s history - an amazing opportunity to learn about it through someone who experienced it first hand,” he said. “Here I am, born and raised in the Berkshires and I had never really left. Then I found out my mom had the gumption to go to a war zone years earlier. That was so bad—-, so impressive. It inspired me to do things and travel and learn for myself.”
Norman set out for Vietnam last May to lay the groundwork for his documentary about the Vietnam Donut Dollies.
“It was powerful to visit places that I knew my mom had lived in so many years ago,” he said. “It’s important to tell this story because while there has been some coverage of the Dollies, there hasn’t been much. They really helped the military, and we wanted to capture as much of their story as we can and let them tell their stories themselves. Now is the time to do that.”
Norman went to social media to raise funds for the project.
“We started a Kickstarter campaign and launched a Facebook page, and the response has been so gratifying. We have donations from all over, and in amounts ranging from $1 to $5,000.”
He said every dollar really does help - the Kickstarter campaign is just over 100 percent of its $25,000 goal with $26,916 raised from 147 donors as of Dec. 14.
That allows Norman to begin two weeks of principal photography in the next four to six weeks, flying his mother and her fellow Donut Dolly Mary Blanchard Bowe to Vietnam to revisit places they haven’t seen for decades. Na Trang and Tuy Hoa are among those places, although Norman is aware that so much time has passed that “a lot of the places have little or no trace of what was there.”
Filming in Vietnam will be followed by perhaps months of post-production work.
“We hope to be sending the completed documentary to film festivals by late next year,” he said.
It’s no simple matter to tell the story of the Dollies, either. A scouting trip in May helped to determine what it will be like to film there, and whether there will be the cooperation needed to locate filming locations. The crew will be small - just two or three people from the U.S. and local Vietnamese production partners to facilitate operations there. Norman said he has also been collecting video interviews and reunions of Dollies for about 15 years, and has some original Super-8 film clips taken in Vietnam.
While she didn’t get all the answers she was searching for during her time in Vietnam, Dorset feels lucky to have been a part of the organization.
“I had heard all the negative stuff, I saw the anti-war demonstrations, but I wanted to find out for myself,” said Dorset. “And I found out. The war was still horrible. But I feel very lucky the Donut Dolly program was available. They really loved it, and we loved going there.”
And having seen it for herself, Dorset sums it up: “War is hard to figure out.”
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