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Last modified: Wednesday, October 3, 2007

World War II from a woman's point of view

Oct. 3, 2007

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. -- Jim Madison was walking through the American Cemetery at Normandy one day in 2001 when his eyes fell on a grave marker that caught him by surprise: "Elizabeth A. Richardson, American Red Cross, Indiana July 25 1945."

The chance discovery -- "sheer accident," Madison called it -- led to his new book: Slinging Doughnuts for the Boys: An American Woman in World War II. Published this month by IU Press, it tells about the war through the observant eyes of Richardson, a smart, college-educated woman from Mishawaka, Ind.

"She was remarkable," said Madison, the Thomas and Kathryn Miller Professor of History at Indiana University Bloomington. "The Red Cross deliberately chose remarkable women. They knew how hard a job this was going to be."

Richardson joined the Red Cross in 1944 and worked on a Clubmobile, a converted bus from which she and other women served coffee and doughnuts to U.S. soldiers scattered across England and France. More important than the food, the women provided sympathy and encouragement. They were a reassuring reminder of home for lonely, miserable GIs.

She died at age 27 in the crash of a two-seater L-5 Sentinel aircraft on which she had hitched a ride from her home base at Le Havre, France, to Paris. She is one of four women buried at the American Cemetery at Normandy.

Madison said the "default" understanding of World War II focuses on the experiences of male soldiers, but women also were integral to the war effort and brought their own perspective to the conflict. "The point I try to make in the book is how close Liz Richardson came to understanding war," he said. "Without seeing combat, she saw the effects of it, and she grieved."

Richardson graduated from Downer College in Milwaukee (later part of Lawrence University), majoring in English and art, and worked in advertising until she and two friends decided to sign up for the Red Cross. She was a talented artist, and her watercolors and clever cartoons illustrate Slinging Doughnuts.

She was also an avid reader and compelling writer whose letters home mixed references to Keats and Monet, GI slang, sharp observation, humor and wit. It was her family's preservation of her letters and diaries that made possible the book, which quotes from them extensively.

When Madison returned from Normandy in 2001, he wrote to the Mishawaka Public Library and asked about Richardson. A librarian sent him a copy of her obituary and a page from her high school yearbook. He managed to contact her younger brother, retired California attorney Charles Richardson Jr., who shared photocopies of some of his sister's letters.

"The key turning point was when I found out her brother was still alive and had saved a lot of her stuff," Madison said. "I got sucked into it."

Slinging Doughnuts appears at a time of urgent interest in World War II, when veterans of the war are reaching the end of their lives and their memories are being lost. But Madison said Liz Richardson's letters and drawings, unfiltered by time, capture the experience of war in a unique way.

"There's that uncertainty. There's that immediacy," he said.

Madison believes America's fascination with World War II will outlive those who fought it and generations that follow them. Since the late 1980s, he has taught undergraduate courses on the war at IU, and he said students eagerly warm up to the subject.

He said he sometimes talks to World War II veterans who "have a sense that young people don't know and they don't care. I tell them it's the opposite."

Author Jim Madison can be contacted for interviews at 812-855-6241 or