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Article 1


Amateur Actor Harold Russell has no trouble with hooks, a great deal with anxious friends

by Bernard Fritzell

LIFE Magazine, December 16, 1946 pages 74-5

Harold Russell, who plays handless Homer Parrish in The Best Years of Our Lives, is not only a nine-day wonder in the movies but also one of the best adjusted veterans of World War II. The most widely publicized double amputee of the war,* Russell realizes that, though there is talk of his getting an Academy Award, he is strictly a one-shot and will probably act in no more movies. Instead he lives in Cambridge, Mass. and is taking a business course at Boston University so that he may go into advertising when he graduates.

Russell's accident occurred at Camp Mackall, N.C. on June 6, 1944, the same date as D-day in Normandy. A sergeant in a demolition squad, he was holding a half-pound block of TNT when it exploded. Both hands went with the blast, but he did not lose consciousness. He said to himself, "There goes the great Russell." That day his hands were amputated three inches above the wrist.

In Walter Reed Hospital, Washington D.C., Russell did not find the funeral atmosphere he feared. It was filled with amputees whose morale was kept high by the example they all set. Nobody overtly showed pity for himself or anybody else. Any reference to amputated appendages was apt to be a gag, albeit grim. A person with both legs amputated was called "shorty," a man with one leg off "limpy" and a man with one arm was "a paper hanger."

The first time Russell saw the hooks that were to replace his hands his immediate and normal reaction was disgust. Worse was the day he first put them on. Over his shoulders went the harness which is attached to the hooks by a pull cord. The right hook is covered with rubber so that glass and other slippery objects may be firmly gripped. The left hook is plain metal. Each hook is operated by moving the opposite shoulder. That first day was torture. Unable to make his new hands do anything, he was ready by evening to throw them out the window-- and almost did.

Next day he tried again. When the regular ration of beer was served he announced with forced cheer, "This time, boys, come hell or high water I'm going to drink that beer without a straw." He grabbed the beer with the right hook, drew it up towards his mouth-- and then spilled it all over the floor, the bed and himself.

The simplest things could only be learned the hard way. Through one heartbreaking failure after another Russell kept doggedly at it. Within three weeks he handled his hooks so well that one day the colonel in charge brought a distinguished party of surgeons around to see how he did it. Entering Russell's ward, they found him with his back turned and on his knees. Russell noticed the men around him had stopped talking and gotten up, but continued what he was doing. "Come on seven," he cried, rolling out the dice. The distinguished visitors were properly impressed. Russell notes, however, that "The hooks didn't roll out any more sevens than my hands did before them."

Learning to adjust himself to his hooks was by no means so large a problem for Russell as that of teaching others to accept them without embarrassment. He got his first taste of these new difficulties the day an airplane took him home from the hospital. Waiting at the airport were his mother and his grammar-school sweetheart, a pretty brunette named Rita Nixon. Russell decided to meet the problem head-on and waved to them with his hooks. The two women were obviously shaken, and though it was some months, Rita says, before she fully recovered and accepted the hooks as normal, Russell still feels this was the best way.

Russell's family and friends were nonetheless good actors and he says he had no trouble with them. Around the neighborhood it was different. "They felt uncomfortable," Russell recalls, "and didn't know what to say." There was an old Irish lady, for example, who remembered that before the war Russell was a good football player and golfer. He sold meat in a chain store and she was one of his customers. When they met again a flood of pity welled up in her. "It's a shameful and terrible thing that's happened to you," she began. Then, realizing that this approach was wrong, she took the opposite tack. "And is it a wonder," she exclaimed, "that it's your hands you've lost? Just think of all those times you weighed the meat on the scales and sold your hands with it."

"I was all right," Russell laughs. "My problem was to make the people I met feel at ease. I just acted myself and didn't sulk in corners hiding the hooks. When my neighborhood friends saw I was okay and laughing they said to themselves, ‘Why should we feel sorry for him? He's getting along better than we are.'"

Before receiving his Army discharge, Russell acted in a training film that showed amputees throughout the country how to master their problems. The training film was seen by Samuel Goldwyn. Shortly after, Russell got the call from Hollywood.

Russell rapidly became so expert with the hooks that there was no normal daily function he could not perform with them except to tie his neckties. One day he asked Charlie McGonigle, a handless veteran of World War I, who uses hooks, how he did his ties. "My boy," said McGonigle, "I got married."

So did Russell-- to Rita. Things run very smoothly in the Russell household. Rita's 4-year-old son by a former marriage has never spoken of Harold's hooks as anything but exceptional. In addition to what he earned in Hollywood, Russell is getting a lifetime pension of $240 a month. He does all the things about the house that a husband normally does, even to the point of avoiding-- successfully, too-- the chore of drying the dishes. "I might break them," he says. To Rita that sounds like a normal husbandly dodge.

Just how normally Russell can be taken was best demonstrated when he was still in uniform. With a few Army buddies he went to the Silver Dollar bar in Boston. Several sailors were sitting next to them, and an Army-Navy debate developed about which service was responsible for Navy guns shooting down U.S. Army planes over Sicily during the war. The argument got heated and it looked as though fists would fly. "I wasn't arguing," Russell says with great earnestness, "but those sailors counted me in with my friends. That meant they were going to sock me too. I've never been so flattered."

*Of 1,202 double amputations among veterans of World War II, 70 lost both hands, 979 lost both legs and 153 and arm and a leg. In addition there were 16 triple amputations and two quadruple amputations.

© 1946 LIFE Magazine

See the preceding LIFE Magazine article on THE BEST YEARS OF OUR LIVES.

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