Benny Jay: Donna Reed’s Memorial Day

May 27th, 2019

The strongest memory I have of Donna Reed is as Jimmy Stewart’s wife, Mary Bailey, in It’s a Wonderful Life.

I’ve seen that movie a hundred times — watched it nearly every Christmas for as long as I can remember. I love that scene where Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed — young and in love — are walking home at night from the dance. He promises to give her anything she wants in life. Just say the word and he’s gonna “throw a lasso around the moon” and give it to her.

Yeah, yeah, I know — I’m hopeless….

I was thinking of Donna Reed cause of a story in the New York Times by Larry Rohter. Turns out that during World War II — when Reed was still in her twenties — hundreds of soldiers sent off to the battlefields of Asia, Africa and Europe saw her as a beloved reminder of the life, women and country they missed.

They’d write her letters — hundreds of hundreds of letters — “as if to a sister or the girl next door, confiding moments of homesickness, loneliness, privation and anxiety,” Rohter writes.

“The boys in our outfit think you are a typical American girl, someone who we would like to come home to!!!!!” wrote Sergeant William F. Love. He wrote that letter on August 18, 1944 from the jungles of New Guinea.

Here’s another letter quoted in the story: “Sometimes I wish I was back there with the old gang, able to go the usual rounds of the week. Occasionally, I will set on the fantail and look at the moon, wondering how many of our old friends were doing the same.”

Then there’s this 1943 letter from Lieutenant Norman P. Klinker: “One thing I promise you — life on the battlefield is a wee bit different from the `movie version.’ It is tough and bloody and dirty….quite an interesting and heartless life at one and the same time.”

On January 6, 1944, Lieutenant Klinker was killed in action in Italy.

These letters would have been long forgotten. Except Donna Reed saved them — kept them in boxes — and her daughter discovered them. One thing led to the another and Rohter wrote it up in today’s New York Times.

Here’s the thing: Donna Reed “became an ardent antiwar campaigner” during the Vietnam War. She was co-chairwoman of “a 285,000-member group called Another Mother For Peace,” and she volunteered for Senator Eugene McCarthy’s 1968 anti-war presidential campaign, according to Rohter.

The story quotes her biographer, Jay Fultz, who writes: “She looked forward to a time when 19-year-old boys will no longer be taken away to fight in old men’s battles.”

Anyway, on Memorial Day, I’d like to offer a toast of gratitude to all the men and women who served.

And here’s to all the other warriors — Donna Reed among them — who fought just as hard for peace.

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