Livingston County, New York, Supports the Troops:
Operation Morale in the Vietnam War, 1967 – 1972
James K. Somerville
Of the various wars America has fought in its brief history, one of the longest and most
contentious was the Vietnam conflict between 1960 and 1973. During these years the country
was increasingly convulsed by deep divisions over the justice and morality of the struggle, and as
the war ground on, there were many who came to question America's very viability as a nation.
Yet in at least one part of the country, citizens were able to put aside their differences
over the war in order to provide tangible support for local servicemen caught up in the conflict.
In 1967, a group of residents of Livingston County, New York, banded together to form an
organization called Operation Morale, the purpose being to send packages of food items,
toiletries, and other goods, plus cards and letters, on a regular basis to area men in Vietnam
(While there is no evidence of any boxes being specifically addressed to female personnel,
women served in a variety of capacities in rear-echelon units, so it is highly likely that some
women shared in the addressee's distribution of goodies to others in his detachment. Moreover,
women staffed military and naval evacuation hospitals in Vietnam and were involved in the
dispersal of OA containers in the wards. See p.9 for thank-you letter from a nurse). The
enterprise continued until 1972, when Operation Morale disbanded as the number of American
troops in Vietnam declined. In its peak years of 1969 – 70, Operation Morale in Livingston
County numbered approximately 1,000 participants organized into ten separate areas (i.e., towns
This is an account of the group's formation, organization, and operation, as well as a
sampling of the grateful responses from the many GI's who received their notes and packages.
Operation Morale began in the County in late October 1967, when Kathryn ("Kay") Clark
of Avon met with Sally Conley of Irondequoit, who headed an Operation Morale group in that
Monroe county community, in order to obtain advice on how to form a Livingston County
chapter. A former dance instructor in Rochester who married a resident of Avon, Mrs. Clark was
active in the local Episcopal Church and various community groups; had authored three
children's books; and had raised three offspring, the youngest of whom was stationed on a naval
vessel in the South China Sea off of Vietnam. In letters to him Mrs. Clark had asked if any of
his shipmates would like to receive letters and small items of value. Her son's positive response
inspired her to establish a group that would offer similar support to other Livingston County men
(and, as it turned out, many who came from other counties and states, as well).
From Conley, Kay Clark obtained "a few bumper stickers, tin can banks, and a partial list
of what to do" in organizing a Livingston County version of Operation Morale. Mrs. Clark
placed the banks in stores in communities, began to enlist volunteers, put notices in local
newspapers, and by Christmas 1967 the newly-minted group had amassed enough money and
goods to ship 300 boxes and an equal number of letters (presumably one letter per box) to
Livingston County soldiers whose names had been provided by the group's members and
servicemen's relatives. Operation Morale was underway. The Livingston County body
continued its affiliation with its Monroe County parent until October 1970, when it broke away
to form a separate organization called Genesee Valley G.I. Morale. The reason for the separation
stemmed from the Livingston Group's desire to gain greater control over its own program,
including the size of the containers that could be shipped; the Monroe County chapter had tried
to restrict the weight of each to five pounds. For purposes of clarity, the term "Operation
Morale" will be used throughout to refer to the Livingston County group.
During most of its existence, Kay Clark remained the heart and soul of the organization.
An active, energetic, and loving person (her children all speak fondly of her), she served as OM's
president, established its Executive Board, helped to organize the local committees, tirelessly
publicized the group's activities and wrote numerous letters both to Livingston County
servicemen and those from other parts of the country. To many of her overseas recipients she
became known as "Mama Kay." Very likely it was she who persuaded several hometown
businesses and local branches of national firms to support the cause, for in a mimeographed form
letter addressed to "Dear Serviceman" in March 1968, she mentions International Salt, Paper
Pac, Dutch Hollow Dairy, General Foods, Frenchies, Champion Knitware, and Fanny Farmer as
having contributed unnamed items and/or money.
Operation Morale was governed by an Executive Board composed of a President, Vice-
President, Secretary, Treasurer, and Legal Advisor. The Board, in turn, presided over a network
of local committees representing, at its zenith, every village or township in the county. It is
likely that in some locales OM committees may have interacted with other, existing community
groups, as was apparently the case in the Town of Geneseo, where the OM group (or members of
it) established a connection with the American Legion Auxiliary; existing evidence does not
permit any firm conclusions on the matter. All participants in Operation Morale were volunteers,
most of them women, many of whom had sons, spouses, or other relatives in the military, or
whose husbands or other kin had served in the armed forces at one time. The organization as a
group took no stand on the war, its sole aim being, through its gifts, cards, and letters, to make
the lives of the servicemen a bit more comfortable, and to assure them that they had not been
forgotten by the folks back home.
The committees solicited donations of food and other goods from local residents;
arranged for the contributions to be deposited in central locations such as churches, schools, and
Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) posts; sorted out what had been collected; and at least initially
packed and sent them out to those G.I.'s whose names and addresses had been obtained.
It appears that the original practice of each committee doing its own mailing proved to be
unsatisfactory, for there is evidence that by 1970 the local bodies were required to deliver their
packages to Kay Clark's garage to be part of a single bulk mailing from there.
The expense of mailing the increasing volume of packages was borne largely by public
donations in the form of checks made out to Operation Morale and through the coins dropped
into tin banks located throughout the county. In 1967 it cost approximately $1.49 to send one
box (size and weight unknown) to Vietnam. Cash donations were modest, with no single
contribution being larger than $100 during the life of the organization.
But the committees may also have emulated Kay Clark's efforts to obtain local business
support, for a folder in the collection of material on OM (see "Sources and Acknowledgements")
contains a form letter to be sent to area merchants asking for donations of "supplies" and
informing them that someone would call upon them in a few days. There is no way of knowing
whether the note was ever sent, how often, or to whom.
Another source of income may have been fund-raising events on OM's behalf. In March
1969, for example, the Avon VFW post sponsored a children's film entitled, "Pinocchio in Outer
Space," with the youngsters' 50 cents admission to the showing being earmarked for OM.
Periodically, the committees sent a standard form to each serviceman on their lists,
asking them if he would like to receive letters and cards from home. The forms also provided
space for the soldiers to include names of men in their units from other parts of the country who
might enjoy hearing from people in Livingston County. Such names were often included on the
sheets when they were returned, and OM's files are full of thank-you notes from GIs hailing from
such far-flung locales as Massachusetts, Alabama, Maryland, and California. At least 27 states
are represented in the grateful notes and letters OM received.
Operation Morale participants at first mailed packages to the men on their lists three
times a year – at Easter, Thanksgiving, and Christmas, as well as Christmas and birthdays cards.
But by 1969 Kay Clark had decided that boxes could be sent only twice a year, at Christmas and
Easter, because of the difficulty of maintaining accurate addresses of men in the war zones (see
p.9 for more on this problem).
Before beginning to assemble goods for the next shipment, either the various committees,
Kay Clark, or both (there is no way of knowing for certain) published appeals for donations in
local newspapers and the Genesee Valley Pennysaver. For example, in the October 19, 1967,
issue of the Caledonia Advertiser, OM requested that community residents provide money,
duplicating facilities and wrapping paper, in addition to a wide variety of goods to be sent to the
troops. In the GV Pennysaver of January 29, 1969, the organization began its preparations for
the Easter shipment by soliciting donations of paperback books plus a variety of such diverse
reading material as car catalogs, Mad Comics, The Atlantic Monthly, and The Saturday Review.
The November 14, 1968, Livonia Gazette reported that containers were being packed for the
yuletide shipment and noted some of the articles to be sent.
From its inception, Operation Morale attracted community support throughout the
county. Veterans' organizations, fraternal orders, service groups, churches, and at least one Red
Cross Chapter helped in various ways to facilitate OM's activities. As noted earlier, the Avon
VFW post raised money on its behalf, and an undated note, probably written in 1970, credits the
Dansville Chapter of Eastern Star with packing boxes for mailing. A year later, the Avon
Jaycees helped to stamp, weigh, and ship some 600 boxes to Vietnam. In November 1967, the
Avon Central Presbyterian Youth Group filled approximately 25 boxes destined for area
servicemen, and a former Red Cross activist recalls wrapping containers in the organization's
cubicle in the Livingston County Courthouse. In November 1968, a youth group auxiliary of
OM was formed in the Dansville-Wayland-Cohocton area to assist the parent organization with
its Christmas mailing. The 14 boys and girls, ages 13 – 19, who comprised the junior branch
planned to help with the packaging and hold teen-age dances to raise money for postage. A
similar group had already organized in the Letchworth area.
A year after its inception, Operation Morale gained official recognition when the mayors
of Mt. Morris, Lima, and Avon issued identical proclamations (probably written for them by Kay
Clark) designating November 6 as "Operation Morale Day" in their respective communities and
asking residents to fly the flag from then through Armistice Day on November 11.
The contents of the boxes the local committees prepared varied from one mailing to the
next, depending on what and how much townspeople and local businesses contributed.
Moreover, pictures taken at the time indicate that several sized containers may have been used,
with one type measuring approximately 10" x 12" x 18". (After receiving his box, one soldier
marveled, "I'll never understand how anyone can get so much into a package so neatly and yet
not damage any of it!") However the sizes may have varied, OM packers sought to include as
wide a variety of goods in each box as they could. For the Christmas 1968 mailing, for instance,
volunteers from Livonia solicited pre-sweetened Kool-Aid (perhaps at the request of an area
serviceman), instant soup, coffee kits, candy, gum, Life Savers, playing cards, peanuts, nail
clippers, pens, stationery, foot powder, sewing kits, and "cookies – cookies – cookies."
For the April 1972 distribution the group requested donations of a veritable cornucopia of
goodies – tins of tuna fish, sardines, and smoked mackerel; snack packs of pudding, raisins, meat
spreads, and fruit juice; plus containers of olives, pickles, potato sticks, nuts, rye bread, gum,
peanuts, dehydrated soup, gravy mix, non-sticky candy and – of course – cookies. To keep the
latter from crumbling during their long journey and frequent handling, Kay Clark circulated a
recipe that shaped the cookies into loaves while including plenty of eggs, sugar, chopped nuts,
chocolate chips and rolled oats. For added insurance, she required their bakers to wrap each one
individually. The servicemen's delighted responses indicated that these efforts generally
succeeded in preserving the cookies intact.
The 1972 shipment also included a range of non-food items: non-white sweat sox,
envelopes, ballpoint pens, and paperback books. Just how many of these myriad items were
actually included in each box – in this or any other shipment – it is impossible to determine.
While packages went to local and other soldiers still in Vietnam, some that year were sent to men
stationed in Thailand and Okinawa - reflective, perhaps, of the drawdown of American forces
Occasionally, OM did something special. In 1970 the Decoration (Memorial) Day
mailing included a "grab bag" inside each container. These were stockings of heavy corduroy or
cotton made according to detailed instructions published in area newspapers. The stockings were
filled with such items as toothpaste, playing cards, gum, Lifesavers, pens, small bars of soap, and
tins of aspirin. Others may have contained drab or brown thread; 78" shoelaces (black); travel
size toothpaste and shaving cream; toothbrush; 2 safety pins; 1 pack of gum; 1 pack of
Lifesavers; and "your note." A similar "sew in" in November 1970, sought to collect 5,000 pairs
of stockings for the Christmas delivery, with each knitwear to be stuffed with gum, Lifesavers,
pens, small pocket knives, tobacco chews, and "love." Besides their contents, the socks
themselves were highly prized by the troops in the field, whose army-issue footwear tended to
disintegrate during Vietnam's rainy season.
The men from Livingston County who received the packages during their tour of duty
shared the food contents with their buddies. E-5 Specialist Clark F. Mathews (hometown
unknown) wrote to "Mama Kay" in May 1970, "The package was great. It's just too bad you
couldn't have been here to see the guys' faces." John Gleason (no hometown given) reported to
Clark in a letter dated December 7, 1969, that the cookies and cakes in his package vanished "in
a matter of seconds," save for a few cookies "which I hid." Aware of the anti-war protests back
home, the soldiers expressed deep gratitude for being remembered. Corporal Thomas A.
Clayson of Wayland wrote in July 1968, "I hope you know how much of us over hear [sic]
appreciate your kindness. We never worry about home with you and the others helping to
support us." Victor C. Nunez of Aranhas Pass, Texas, penned an emotional thank-you to Kay
Clark on December 15, 1969, stating, "it is people like you and everyone in Operation Morale
that make me proud to be an American and a Marine," and pledging, "I would give my life to
keep good people like you free." On Christmas Eve of that year, Major Russell Davison of
Springfield, Illinois but formerly of Lima, assured the OM volunteers, "your [accompanying]
letter helps greatly to bring this unfortunate war back into perspective. So much of the publicity
concerning the attitude of the American public [toward the war] contributes to a frightening
sense of futility. I think you have very nicely lived up to your title, Operation Morale." Army
nurse Lt. Mary Yates reported in 1969 that she had distributed OA packages to her Cam Rahn
Bay patients which were "greatly appreciated....May God bless you and your organization for
Judging from the number of responses in the files of the Livingston County Historian's
Office, we know that hundreds of GI's must have benefited from OM's generosity. It is
impossible, however, to determine either how many men from Livingston Country or elsewhere
received packages and/or letters, or the number of boxes dispatched by the organization during
its five years' existence. Veterans' Administration records of the number of local men who
served in Vietnam are unavailable because of confidentiality issues, and while Selective Service
listed 759 draftees from Livingston County serving in the Armed Forces in 1967, there is no way
of knowing how many of them may have been stationed in Vietnam in that or subsequent years,
not to mention the number of local enlisted men or career officers who may have been assigned
Several factors prevent a precise compilation of the number of parcels OM mailed. The
group's records are fragmentary and incomplete at best, non-existent at worst. Moreover,
Operation Morale included in its shipments packages prepared by families and individuals who
were not affiliated with the organization; there is no way of knowing how many of these may
have been part of the estimated totals that are available for any given year. Then, too, OM
shipped boxes not only to particular servicemen but also (at least for a time) to seven chaplains,
eight Evacuation Hospitals, ten military units, six orphanages, and two hospital ships, the goods
to be distributed by those in command as they saw fit. Evidence of the discrepancy in numbers
this may have caused is a letter by Kay Clark to Chaplain Gary Stronk on February 6, 1968, in
which she reported that OM had mailed out "about" 350 packages the previous Christmas. Yet a
list of the men who received Holiday goodies and greetings contains only 132 names;
presumably, the rest of the shipment had gone to the fore-mentioned individuals and agencies.
Finally, with the exception of the above count, whatever lists OM compiled of local men in
Vietnam are either no longer in existence, or at the time quickly went out-of-date. An example
of the problem of keeping the tabulations current is a 1967 – 68 mimeographed list of 189 typed
and hand-written names, their Vietnam addresses and birth dates, and the names and addresses of
next of kin. Several of the soldiers' names have the word, "returned" written through them and
scrawled across the entire sheet is the notation, "obsolete, 4/1/68."
Still, the scattered estimates that are available provide some indication of the volume of
boxes sent to Vietnam at various times. The figures are impressive. Kay Clark reported in April
1968 that at least 900 packages "of various sizes" had been sent to Vietnam as its Easter mailing.
A news release dated May 7, 1970, declared that the Livingston County OM had mailed over
1,000 food and gift packages since December 1968. That same year (1970) the Rochester
Democrat and Chronicle noted that 1500 containers were being readied for the Easter shipment,
and in October Operation Morale was busy preparing another 1500 parcels for the Christmas
mailing. A 1972 Democrat and Chronicle article announcing the group's disbandonment stated
that since its inception OM had mailed over 22,000 pounds of foodstuffs and other items to both
local and other servicemen in Vietnam. However accurate any of these figures may be, the many
thank-you notes and letters addressed to the organization and its founder, "Mama Kay" from the
recipients of OM's largesse, testifies to OM's extensive operations.
The women, men, and youth from Livingston County who, year after year, devoted their
time, energy, material goods, and money to making a little brighter the lives of the men and
women embroiled in an ugly, increasingly unpopular war, must have derived considerable
satisfaction from their efforts. Their sense of fulfillment could only have increased had they
known of the assessment made by an unknown colonel who in 1972 declared that of the
numerous volunteer agencies that had shipped goods and mail to Vietnam, Operation Morale was
"the most consistent and reliable of them all."
Sources and Acknowledgements
This study is based on a body of material that Operation Morale's founder, Kay Clark,
accumulated between 1967 – 72, the years of the group's existence. When she died in 1991, the
collection passed into the hands of her younger son, James, who in 2008 donated it to the
Livingston County Historian's Office for preservation and cataloging. The collection is divided
into two parts. The first consists of several manila folders containing newspaper clippings
describing OM activities or appealing for public support, plus a miscellany of other items: copies
of blank forms sent to servicemen to obtain their current military addresses; lists of those
addresses; news releases to area newspapers; a few letters by and to Kay Clark; suggestions on
what goods should be collected and sent, and detailed instructions on how to pack a box;
excerpts of thank-you notes from recipients of the Easter 1967 mailing (probably misdated); and
several un-cataloged letters from soldiers in the field. While there are large gaps in the
information available, I have drawn extensively upon the folder's contents (as well as on the
memories of those who were involved in or familiar with OM – see Acknowledgements) to
prepare this history.
The second part of the collection is composed of approximately 1,000 notes and letters,
many of them addressed to Kay Clark, from the men who received packages and correspondence
from OM. Many are brief but heartfelt expressions of gratitude written on information forms
they returned to Kay Clark, while others comprise two-three page letters which couple their
thanks with praise for OM, describe life in the field, and express their yearnings for home. All of
the material has been organized by year and filed in ten ring notebooks. I have dipped into the
writings for examples of the men's responses to the goods, notes, and cards they were sent.
It would have been impossible to piece together OM's story without both the enthusiastic
support and important information provided by several individuals. My biggest debt is to Amie
Alden, Livingston County Historian, who first showed me the office's Vietnam holdings and
suggested I write a history of Operation Morale; neither of us anticipated at the time that the
project would grow into what it has become. Jim Clark of Fowlerville deserves plaudits for
retaining through the years his mother's extensive collection, and for transferring it to the
Historian's Office for safekeeping and organization. I have benefited from his recollections of
Kay Clark's dynamicism and caring. Jim's sister Kathy Valleau of Vale, Colorado, has
encouraged my interest every step of the way and has shared with me her recollections of her
mother. John Snyder of Greenville, South Carolina, a boyhood friend of Jim Clark and himself a
Vietnam vet, offered additional insights into "Mama Kay's" talents and personality. Donna and
Bob Kelsey, Dolly Klee, Molly MacKeowan, Mary Robinson, Tom Roffe, and Betty Vary
assisted me in a variety of ways, and I thank them, as well, for their help. Sally Schmoldt typed
the manuscript expertly, despite my interminable insertions, corrections, and use of all caps. My
wife, Arleen, asked pertinent questions and displayed infinite patience during my episodic
ramblings about "The Project."
October 8, 2009