Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Women of Wednesday: Dear Donna

We thought of her as Donna Stone -- the wholesome, good-natured mom on The Donna Reed Show. And the steadfast and upbeat Mary Bailey in It's A Wonderful Life. She also starred in From Here to Eternity, and won an Oscar for her performance.

Little did we know she was so much more to hundreds of young men fighting in World War II.

Back then, movie studios encouraged troops to write to Hollywood movie stars during the war as a way to keep morale high. In return, the men received glossy pin-ups of stars like Betty Grable, Rita Hayworth, and Heddy Lamar, among many glamorous others. Most of that correspondence has been lost, except for that kept by Donna Reed. The letters from soldiers were discovered in a shoebox in her garage after the actress's death in 1986.

Her children eventually made that correspondence public, and as this article in the New York Times says, the letters offer a look at a time that is quite different than our own -- and a war that is very different than that we're fighting now in both Iraq and Afghanistan. But just like our soldiers, the men of WWII felt -- and write -- of the hard work of war, their loneliness, and their determination.

Unlike the more glamorous movie stars, Donna Reed represented a more accessible and girl-back-home image the young men were drawn to. Sgt. William F. Love wrote this on August. 18, 1944:

'“The boys in our outfit think you are a typical American girl, someone who we would like to come home to!!!!!” Sgt. John C. Dale of Tennessee, a tail gunner on a B-17, told Ms. Reed, then 23, that he wanted her “to be the girl back home that I am fighting for.”'

She wrote back to some of them, too. Edward Skvarna was training to be a right tail-gunner when he actually met Donna at a U.S.O. canteen, and asked her to dance. He kept writing her letters during his tours of duty, and she wrote back on occasion.

Although she didn't talk about the letters with her family, Donna Reed eventually went on to co-chair the anti-war efforts of Another Mother for Peace during the Viet Nam campaign. She hoped fervently that ‘19-year-old boys will no longer be taken away to fight in old men’s battles."

Hats off to wonderful Donna Reed.

You can read the full text of the New York Times article here.


Diane said...

Good post! I love the idea that Donna Reed recognized that old men are responsible for sending the young to die and that she was willing to stand up 30 years later and speak truth to power. That took real guts!

I'm Jet . . . said...

I read this article about her several months ago, and knew I wanted to blog about her. I agree, Diane.


Andy said...

Wow! Terrific post, Janet! Her activism gives me an appreciation for Donna Reed I never had. Thanks for digging this up.