Saturday, November 6, 2004

Harold Russell

From the New York Times obituary, by Richard Severo, February 1, 2002:

Harold Russell was born [in 1914] in North Sydney, Nova Scotia. His father was a telegraph office manager who died when Harold was 6. His death caused the family to move to Cambridge, Mass., where Mrs. Russell was a nurse and where Harold started working at odd jobs at the age of 10. After high school he worked in a food market.

Mr. Russell said he “made a rush to the recruiting office” after Pearl Harbor was bombed, not out of patriotism but because he thought of himself as a failure.

After basic training, he volunteered to become a paratrooper, and he learned that skill as well as demolition. The United States Army made him an instructor. On June 6, 1944, while some of the men he trained were involved in the D-Day landing, Mr. Russell was teaching demolition work at Camp Mackall in North Carolina and a defective fuse detonated TNT that he was holding. The next day what was left of his hands were amputated three inches above the wrists.

Walter Reed General Hospital offered him a choice of prosthetic devices: plastic hands or steel hooks. He chose the hooks, proved unusually adept at mastering them and eventually made a training film for soldiers who had lost both hands. The film, “Diary of a Sergeant,” showed Mr. Russell in daily activities.

Wyler saw the film after he had been asked by the producer Samuel Goldwyn to direct “The Best Years of Our Lives.” Wyler urged Goldwyn to hire Mr. Russell, and after some coaxing Mr. Russell, who was then attending business school at Boston University, agreed to appear in the film. The salary—$250 a week, with an additional $100 a week for living expenses—seemed generous, especially when compared with the $25 a week he had earned as a part-time worker at a Y.M.C.A.

The movie won eight Oscars and was a financial success. To show his gratitude, Goldwyn awarded Mr. Russell a bonus of $120 a week for a year, asking that he make promotional appearances.

Later, Mr. Russell was active in Amvets, a veterans’ organization, becoming the national chairman. In 1950 he became a founder of the World Veterans Foundation.

In 1954 “The Best Years of Our Lives” was rereleased and journalists asked why Mr. Russell had made no other movies. “I decided to quit while I was ahead of the game,” he told one reporter.

Mr. Russell received few other offers to act. He had several television roles, and in film he appeared in “Inside Moves” (1980), about handicapped people who congregated in a bar and helped each other, and in “Dogtown” (1997), in which he played a cigar store owner and war veteran in a small town.

In 1961 President John F. Kennedy appointed Mr. Russell as vice chairman of the President’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped. In 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson made him the chairman, and Richard M. Nixon reappointed him.

Survivors include a daughter, Adele; a son, Gerald; four grandchildren; and seven great-grandchildren.

In his 1949 autobiography “Victory in My Hands,” Mr. Russell recounted his struggle to recover physically and psychologically from his wounds, and to use his prostheses. He became so adept at using his hooks, he liked to joke, that he could do anything but pick up a dinner check.

As a man who would go on to promote veterans’ causes, he wrote: “It is not what you have lost but what you have left that counts.”
[Note: I was lucky to borrow a copy of Victory in My Hands through interlibrary loan a few years ago. Imagine my surprise to find that the book was signed by Harold Russell, in the peacock-blue ink that filled so many fountain pens all those years ago.]

comments: 2

Kim said...

My father, Rusty Rust, was the man who drove Harold Russell to the hospital the day of the accident. My father was also a paratrooper. Harold talks about my father in 'Victory in my hands.' It's interesting to see that someone else is interested in his story.

Michael Leddy said...

Kim, thanks for sharing that story here. I’m amazed to hear from someone whose father’s life intersected with Harold Russell’s. I will have to get the book again.

If you’re wondering why I was quoting from a 2002 obituary in 2004: I began my blog as a place to collect items relevant to my teaching. I was teaching The Best Years of Our Lives in 2004, paired with Homer’s Odyssey.