National Doughnut Day, celebrated on the first Friday of June, is a time for Americans to come together and celebrate doughnuts of all flavors. But the history of National Doughnut Day is more than the story of food councils and PR firms throwing a date on the calendar. National Doughnut Day was created back in 1938 by the Salvation Army, and though the charity might today be best known for the red kettles it sets out at Christmas, it was once America’s favorite doughnut distributor. In fact, the modern popularity of doughnuts can be traced back to the Salvation Army’s role in the trenches of World War I. 

In 1917, the Salvation Army sent about 250 volunteers to the French battlefields with a mission to, according to a press release, “provide spiritual and emotional support for U.S. soldiers.” These volunteers, primarily women, set up huts as close to the frontlines of war as possible to give the soldiers clothes, supplies, and food, and to generally keep them happy in the midst of the horrors of war.

One of the more specific requests from the American troops was a taste of something sweet, like pies or cookies, but baking was all but impossible since there were no ovens on the battlefields. “And, of course,” explained Lieutenant Colonel Ron Busroe, National Secretary for Community Relations and Development at the Salvation Army (and self-proclaimed official doughnut taster), “trying to get supplies was very difficult.” 

“The story,” Busroe said, “is that they were about to get some flour and some lard and some cinnamon and occasionally some sugar and some baking powder. What do you do? Well, they ended up making doughnuts.” And the women of the Salvation Army fried up a lot of doughnuts, enough to earn the nickname “doughnut lassies.” According to one report from the New York Times, Brigadier Helen Purviance, one of the Salvation Army volunteers credited with making the first doughnuts in the field, cooked “no fewer than 1,000,000 doughnuts for the United States fighting forces in France during the World War,” in less than ideal situations, “cooking doughnuts under shellfire with a cutter made out of an evaporated milk can and a shaving-stick holder and a grape-juice bottle for a rolling pin.” The women sometimes even fried up the doughnuts in soldiers’ helmets, and were occasionally forced to wear gas masks because they were so close to the frontlines.

The hard work and grueling conditions paid off because the soldiers loved the doughnuts and, in turn, the Salvation Army, associating the charity with their favorite snacks. Sargent Edgar S. Chase of Haverhill, Massachusetts, wrote a letter to his friend from the battlefield that was later published in the Boston Daily Globe, raving about the Salvation Army and their doughnuts: “Can you imagine hot doughnuts, and pie and all that sort of stuff? Served by mighty good looking girls, too.”

This connection between doughnuts and the Salvation Army continued once the war concluded, and while the Salvation Army can’t be credited with inventing the doughnut, the organization did turn this ring of fried dough into an American classic. “By the close of World War I,” writes John T. Edge in his book Donuts: An American Passion, “the Salvation Army was among the strongest charitable forces in American—and their chosen totem, the donut, was an ingrained symbol of home.”

That meant when the veterans returned to America, they brought along a soft spot for the charitable organization and a taste for the treats and demanded their local coffee shops start serving these sweets. Automatic machines were invented, replacing the glass bottles and soldiers’ helmets fryers, and became accessible to the average American, not just veterans. But doughnuts, and the Salvation Army’s role in their modern origin story, were never forgotten, even immortalized in popular tunes like “Don’t Forget the Salvation Army (My Donut Girl)” and on Broadway in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1919 with the number “We Made the Doughnuts Over There,” written by Irving Berlin.

The Salvation Army once again capitalized on the popularity of doughnuts and their history with them during the Great Depression. The first National Doughnut Day was celebrated in 1938 in Chicago as a fundraiser, “to help particularly WWI veterans and their families their families who were suffering as a result of the Great Depression,” explained Colonel Busroe.

The holiday was a hit, so the Salvation Army kept celebrating it, and over the years, as national doughnut chains have risen to prominence over neighborhood coffee shops, the holiday has grown alongside it. That doesn’t mean the charitable history has been forgotten, even among the big brands. In fact, this National Doughnut Day, the Salvation Army is partnering with Krispy Kreme, which will be giving out free doughnuts and letting the charity set up donation kettles next to the store’s cash registers.

For Colonel Busroe of the Salvation Army, the free doughnuts are definitely a perk of the holiday, but it’s also a chance to remember the volunteers, those doughnut lassies, from World War I, whose only job was to improve the lives of others. “These mostly young women, and a few young men, put themselves in harm’s way and made doughnuts. Something simple,” said Colonel Busroe. “But that little touch of home made it very special.”

“Simple acts of compassion change people’s lives,” Busroe added, and sometimes, all it takes is a doughnut to make someone’s day. Especially when it’s free.