It’s hard not to be cynical about many national food days. They tend to be the brainchildren of people who benefit financially from the success of the food in question, not of those who simply love to eat it. National Pie Day, for example, was founded by the National Pie Council. National Peanut Butter Day, similarly, was the brainchild of the National Peanut Board.
But here’s one that even the most jaded celebrant can get behind: National Doughnut Day. Its origins go back much further — to 1938, to be exact — and the day is as much about the people behind the food as it is about the ring of fried dough itself.
During World War I, women volunteering for the Salvation Army made doughnuts for soldiers serving overseas as a way to boost morale. National Doughnut Day was launched in 1938 by the Chicago branch of the Salvation Army, in part as a way to raise funds for, and awareness of, the organization’s work in the community. But the spirit behind the day was the recognition of these women’s contribution to the war effort.
The tradition begun by the Salvation Army’s dough girls or dough lassies, as they were sometimes called, was picked up again by the Red Cross during World War II, when LIFE dispatched a photographer to capture the women in action. The women Bob Landry photographed were posted in England, one of 72 similar outfits across the country. And the morale boost they brought was not only a result of the treats they offered. As LIFE wrote of the volunteers, “They are hand-picked for looks, education, personality and experience in recreational fields. They are hardy physically and have a sociable, friendly manner.”
The soldiers featured in LIFE, stationed in England in 1944, would greet the women with “howls of delight,” their spirits successfully lifted to the point that the slogan “doughnuts will win the war!” became popular among them. Victory would come at a higher cost, of course, but doughnut lovers will be pleased to know that their favorite treat once served a nobler purpose.
Liz Ronk, who edited this gallery, is the Photo Editor for LIFE.com. Follow her on Twitter @lizabethronk.