EXCLUSIVE: Don Kirchner, an attorney in northern Minnesota, is the son of George H Kirchner, who was in the 307th Infantry of the 77th Division on Okinawa during World War II and participated in the battle for the Maeda Escarpment, aka Hacksaw Ridge. Don contacted me after reading my coverage of the world premiere of Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge in Venice. At the time, he told me he’d only seen the trailer but that what it depicted “was just as my father had described the battle to my brother and me when we were kids — climbing up nets and ladders and finding Hell on Earth upon reaching the top. Dad told us about Desmond Doss and his heroics.”
Gibson’s story centers on Doss (Andrew Garfield) and the incredible tale of the conscientious objector who never carried a gun, yet saved dozens of men from the battle of Okinawa. The film recently crossed $100M at the worldwide box office. It has three Golden Globe nominations, seven Critics’ Choice nomination, and two SAG noms so far. It won nine AACTA awards in Australia; and is one of the National Board of Review’s Top 10 films of the year, as well as one of the 10 films honored this year by the American Film Institute.
George Kirchner is now 91, and Don has now seen the film. He wrote the following and shared it with Deadline:
“Well, I went to see the movie Hacksaw Ridge. Unbelievable! I kept touching my arm, wondering why I’m here. For my father was in that battle, and I don’t know how Dad made it through it… The movie depicted it just as my father had described the battle to my brother and me when we were kids… Dad told us about Desmond Doss and his heroics. A few years later, for some reason the St. Paul Dispatch-Pioneer Press printed an article about Doss, complete with the story of the battle and a then-current picture of Doss holding his Medal of Honor. Dad exclaimed, ‘That’s the guy I was telling you about!’ He cut out the article and placed it in his copy of Ours To Hold It High: The History Of The 77th Infantry Division In World War II. Dad is listed on the roster on page 510 of the book: Kirchner, George H, E 307.
“Dad is now 91 and in excellent health, living in Lilydale. It looks like Mel Gibson and the filmmakers did their research. The escarpment was just as Dad had described it and as his book showed it. Of course, literary license probably was necessary. E.g., the Banzai attack and the resulting hand-to-hand combat actually took place at night. For visual purposes, I assume, the film staged it in the morning. Missing, therefore, was the psychological impact of the bells. The enemy wore little bells on their belts, and when that mass started running toward you, the sound at night of all those bells must have been frightening. Dad said, ‘You heard the bells, and you knew they were coming.’ I suppose they thought the Americans would turn and run. Wrong! Also, Desmond Doss was not wounded at that battle. He was wounded late in the Okinawa campaign. Otherwise the film appeared to be historically accurate. Lest you think that the graphic scenes of dead bodies, etc were hyperbolic, no. Dad said that it’s a smell you’ll never forget. The end of the movie made me cry a little. They showed a quote of Desmond Doss. ‘The real heroes are those who never came back.’ That’s exactly what Dad has said from my earliest memories: ‘I am no hero. The heroes are those who never came back.’
“I talked to my brother and sister and suggested that we shouldn’t invite Dad to see the movie. I don’t know that he’d want to. But, even if he did, there’s no reason to drag up these realistic memories from the past that he put behind him, married, raised and spoiled us kids, and lives a good, productive life even at 91.
“I remember talking to his best friend and cousin, Clarence Kirchner. Dad came home, Clarence asked him, ‘Pretty rough over there, Bud (Dad’s nickname)?’ ‘Yup’ was the answer. That was it. They never talked about it. And lest you think that Dad often talked about it, no. Only when we were kids, and only a couple of times. I encourage you all to see the movie. Yes, there are graphic battle scenes. But the movie goes through Desmond Doss’ childhood, the love story with his wife, his struggles in training being a conscientious objector who wanted to serve, unarmed, as a medic in battle, and even old footage of his having the Medal of Honor bestowed by President Truman and excerpts of interviews.
“Thank you, Dad, for your service, and thank you to all who have served. And a special thanks and remembrance to the heroes who never came back.”