By James H. Madison
Prologue Magazine Fall 2007, Vol. 39, No. 3
The neatly aligned rows of white markers at the Normandy American Cemetery in France encourage visitors to think more carefully about the 9,387 Americans interred in this sacred soil—and about the war they fought. One of those markers, above Omaha Beach, is particularly intriguing. It reads:
Elizabeth A. Richardson
American Red Cross
Indiana July 25 1945
Elizabeth Richardson’s story opens a window into World War II that enhances and shifts the usual tales of men, foxholes, and bombers. Her life began in Indiana, moved on to college and career years in Wisconsin, and finished with service with the American Red Cross in England and France in 1944 and 1945.
Liz Richardson grew up in Mishawaka, Indiana, an industrial town, 100 miles east of Chicago. After graduation from Mishawaka High School in 1936, she went off to Milwaukee-Downer College. There she embraced the academic and social life of this small liberal arts school. Although she joked lightheartedly about professors and classes, she developed a curiosity that kept her engaged with art, music, literature, and international affairs after graduation.
Along with many of the 1930s generation, Liz believed that America should remain isolated from Europe’s tangled quarrels. The Great War of 1914–1918 had taught that lesson. The beginning of another European war in 1939 convinced Liz that “the U.S. will be suckers if they enter it.” Pearl Harbor quickly changed her mind. This was now a necessary war, yet she regretted the necessity. “Like a toothache, I hope it ends quickly,” she wrote her aunt soon after American entry.
The war didn’t end quickly but became instead the most brutal war in human history. Although excited about her new advertising job in Milwaukee, Liz began to follow war news more closely and to worry about friends in uniform. She wanted to do something. In early 1944, with two women she had known in college, she joined the American Red Cross. “We just had to go,” one of the friends recalled.
Their choice made good sense. Female applicants for Red Cross postings overseas had to be college graduates, single, and at least 25 years of age. Recruiting teams traveled the country interviewing candidates. Reference letters and physical examinations were essential, but the personal interview was the clincher and, as one official wrote, “often centered around the intangibles of personality.” The rigorous selection process accepted only one in six applicants.
Twenty-five-year-old Liz passed her medical examination and whizzed through the all-important personal interview. After six weeks of training in Washington, D.C., she boarded the Queen Elizabeth, one of 15,000 Americans “the Queen” carried across the Atlantic to war in mid-July 1944. A calm voyage placed her in England, a country that had been ravaged by nearly five years of Nazi bombers, food shortages, and the horrors of total war. The English were bearing up in their particular way, sacrificing, fighting hard, and carrying on, but England was a dark and tired place by 1944. The Americans were the great light and hope.
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