When the hero of Hacksaw Ridge had lunch at the VHS
Months ago when I read that a new movie produced by Mel Gibson was based on the story of Virginian Desmond Doss, a flood of sweet memories of visiting with Desmond and his (second) wife, Frances, came to mind.
It was 1994 and the VHS had recently completed its first capital campaign. I was the director of development and public affairs. The biggest challenge to raising the money in that very first campaign was creating interest in what the VHS had to offer without encouraging visitors because the building was closed to the public during a lengthy construction period. The solution was an ad campaign—what became an award-winning pro bono campaign donated by Kerry Feuerman and Carolyn McGeorge, both at Earle Palmer Brown Advertising Agency. The last ad in the series (by that time Kerry and Carolyn were working at the Martin Agency, and the building had reopened) was the story of Desmond Doss, conscientious objector.
Frances and Desmond lived in Rising Fawn, Georgia. We invited them to the VHS for lunch, to approve the ad and to talk to Desmond about loaning his medal of honor to the VHS for an exhibit on V-J Day. More than twenty years after that lunch, I can still say that I have never met a more compelling person. He was slight in build, elderly, and fragile from injuries suffered in Okinawa. Even with hearing aids, he had a hard time hearing. What he might have lacked in physical strength was completely overcome by the obvious strength of his character and the truth of his beliefs. He was a spellbinding speaker. It was comforting and easy to listen to him as he spoke. He talked about his home in Georgia, about gardening, about God’s love, about the beauty of nature, about the greatness of this country, about his first wife Dorothy and her trials. He talked about the joy that Frances had brought to his life. And though he clearly loved Virginia, Georgia had won his heart. He spoke with humor, laughing often and drawing frequent chuckles from Frances.
My boss at the time, Charlie Bryan, one of the best historians and most talented administrators in the museum field, kept encouraging Desmond to talk about Okinawa and the fateful action that day and into the evening on Hacksaw Ridge. Charlie asked questions about Harry Truman and the ceremony when President Truman presented the medal of honor to Desmond. What was Desmond thinking at the time? What was the president like?
Desmond was so unaffected in his responses. There was no trace of ego and no personal pride. He didn’t use exaggeration or hyperbole in his retelling of the story. No great descriptors in the narrative—only a simple telling of facts. Above all, Desmond exuded a sense of wonder that we were interested.
After that lunch, I stayed in touch with Desmond and Frances for a while. They visited the VHS a time or two after that when they were on their way to Lynchburg.
When I see the new movie, it will be quite reassuring to know already how it ends. That Desmond, though injured, survived to live a long life. And most of all that the hero of Hacksaw Ridge remained a hero all his life.
Pam Seay is the Senior Vice President for Advancement at the Virginia Historical Society.