A column from the Donna Reed Foundation.
Sleuthing in the Donna Reed Archives
by Judy Miller
On September 1, 1939, German troops, under the direction of Adolph Hitler, invaded Poland. Two days later, France and Britain, in support of Poland, declared war on Germany, beginning WWII. With the war raging on in Europe, Germany's ally, Japan, bombed a U.S. naval base in Pearl Harbor, Oahu on December 7, 1941. The following day U.S. Congress declared war on Japan, at which point Germany and the other Axis powers declared war on the U.S.
Donna Reed was, at that time, finding success and popularity as a Hollywood ingenue, but like all Americans, was far from unaffected by the war. On September 16, 1942, she wrote to her longtime pen pal, "As yet, my effort to win the war has not amounted to much; true, I'm investing 10%, but I feel that isn't much, so this week I joined the Hollywood Canteen, which enables me to entertain soldiers at the Hollywood USO at least one night a week for three hours. That still isn't very much, and I wish I could find more to do. Sometimes I think we women should be out with guns. I get so all fired up over the tide of events."
Donna did find more to do. She became a popular morale-boosting pinup girl with the encouragement of MGM Studios and the U.S. Department of Defense. She seemed to be the combination of glamor girl and the girl next door that American GIs wanted and needed. One soldier wrote to Donna from "our shelter under a bridge in Italy" that his platoon considered her their "Squadron Angel."
"The boys in our outfit," Sgt. William F. Love wrote on August 18, 1944, from the jungles of New Guinea, "Think you are the typical American girl, someone we would like to come home to!"
It was common practice for letters to the pinup girls from soldiers to be answered with a studio-signed glossy print, but Donna seemingly treasured these letters and replied to many of them personally. Among the most poignant was the correspondence shared with a hometown boy, Lt. Norman Klinker, who went from Harvard Law School to the 91st Artillery Battalion stationed in North Africa. He expressed a longing to be back with the "old gang" in Denison and congratulated Donna on her marriage to makeup artist, William Tuttle (which ended up lasting just a little more than a year). He assured her, "I promise you…life on the battlefield is a wee bit different than the movie version...It's tough and bloody and dirty." Klinker was killed in action on January 6, 1944, at age 24, in Italy.
In 1986, following Donna's death, her youngest child, Mary Owen discovered a shoe box in the garage of the family home in Beverly Hills where it had been stored for over 40 years. It contained 341 of these letters. Mary said, “Reading them made me feel really proud. These letters captured the pinup culture. These women were almost like talismans that the men were pinning up in their barracks to get them through the war and to remind them of what they were fighting for. I had no idea what an important symbol she was to these guys. At home she tried to be a mom and not a celebrity, so she didn't talk much about her film career or part in the war effort."
These letters now remind us of the lives that Donna brought together in times larger than anyone could have imagined. Her contributions remain indelible even today.
As of August 1, the Donna Reed Museum hours are 11:00 a.m. through 4:00 p.m. Tours are available on Thursdays and Saturdays at 1:00 p.m. or can be arranged by making a request at the office at 712-263-3334 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.