When Harold Russell as a young boy moved with his family after his father’s death from Nova Scotia, Canada, to Massachusetts, he never dreamed of being an American soldier and later a movie actor being cast in “The Best Years of Our Lives,” the highly acclaimed post-World War II movie.
Russell was greatly affected by the attack on Pearl Harbor and joined the U.S. Army the next day. While he was an Army instructor and training with the U.S. 13th Airborne Division at Camp Mackall, North Carolina, a defective fuse detonated an explosive he was handling while making a training film. As a result, he lost both hands and was given two hooks to serve as hands.
It was while at Camp Mackall that Russell met Agnes Deane of Rockingham (wife of U.S. Representative C.B. Deane and mother of the late Charles Deane, local attorney and member of the N.C. State legislature). Mrs. Deane was a devoted member of the Gray Ladies, an organization of American Red Cross volunteers who worked in American hospitals and other health care facilities notably during WWII. The volunteers did such things as write letters, read to, and shopped for sick, injured, or disabled military personnel.
Russell and Mrs. Deane formed a friendship and stayed in touch for many years. She often expressed to her family and friends how proud she was of him for his acting career and work for disabled veterans.
When film director William Wyler saw Russell in an Army film after his accident at Mackall detailing rehabilitation of war veterans, he decided to cast him in “The Best Years of Our Lives.” The film is about three United States servicemen re-adjusting to societal changes and civilian life after coming home from the war.
The film, released in 1946, won seven Academy Awards. Fredric March won the Best Actor Award for the film and a true veteran and untrained actor, Harold Russell, won two Best Supporting Actor awards. One of his Supporting Actor awards was given as a more or less honorary award while the other Supporting Actor award was bestowed on him by the Motion Picture Academy for his outstanding performance.
Russell later appeared in two other films and several television shows in guest starring roles. He also became active in AMVETS, serving three times as national commander and was appointed in the 1960s as chairman of the President’s Commission on Employment of the Handicapped.
Russell died of a heart attack in January of 2002 at the age of 88.
Helen Cox is a former journalist and educator in Richmond County.