It reads like a Nicholas Sparks novel, but without all the gooey schmaltz. A collection of over 300 wartime letters penned by GIs and addressed to actress Donna Reed during WWII’s darkest years have been released, after nearly 65 years of being hidden away in a shoebox in Reed’s Beverly Hills home.
Written on impossibly humid South Pacific midnights and achingly cold Eastern European mornings when memories of home flickered like a fading dream and the soul grasped for a tangible reason to keep vigilant, these letters were cries for hope and comfort in a savage world of never-ending nightmares. And their comfort was found in young Miss Reed: “the girl back home” that they were fighting for.
The world was far from a global village then: 7,000 miles mean nothing now with twitter and facebook and iPhones—the faces of your loved ones are never more than a click away. But in 1944, a single black and white photograph of your best gal was the only thing to keep you connected across the 7,000 miles of ocean and jungle that separated New Jersey from New Guinea. And for these GIs, Donna was their ideal best gal.
The letters were authored by kids, really—all of 19 and 20 years old. Young soldiers who couldn’t have known that their earnest scrawls would, 65 years later, become truly important pieces of history. But Reed, who passed away 1986, must have felt the importance of it all and kept 341 of them quietly tucked away. The Guardian put it this way: “Reed kept the letters because she saw them as precious mementoes of an age when innocence and slaughter were locked together.”
“Mom never mentioned them,” said Reed’s youngest daughter Mary Owen. “I had no idea she was such an important symbol to these guys.” Betty Grable’s legs and Rita Hayworth’s negligee’s might more readily pop into mind on the subject of wartime pinups—but “Reed probably came closer than any other actress to being the archetypical sweetheart, wife and mother.” Said biographer Jay Fultz.
So just why is this discovery so meaningful? The Guardian newspaper has captured the heart of these exceptionally revelatory letters in a beautifully written post on their film blog so I hand the mic over to them:
“We have a war now in the Middle East that has gone on longer than America’s involvement in the second world war. And maybe there are Hollywood people who send letters and glossy photographs signed, “Good luck!” But, of course, the guys out there have endless digital coverage of their wives and girlfriends now – some of it cheerfully pornographic – and so they hardly need dreams. You can add that there really aren’t people like Donna Reed any more.
Still, the discovery of that shoebox seemed like a revelation of real history, of where we have come from and of what movies can never mean again. You have to wonder how many times Reed looked at the shoebox and thought of throwing it out. We only know that she kept it. But you have to be an awful cynic to decide that that was because she had forgotten it. The men were expendable, perhaps, but not the messages.”