'Forrest Gump' Was Loosely Based on a Real Person (or Two)

Reese Watson - Author

Jun. 11 2020, Updated 5:30 p.m. ET

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Tom Hanks’ performance in the 1994 film Forrest Gump is so believable and true to the character and backstory of Forrest Gump that audiences wonder if the film is not entirely fiction. Could a plot that so thoroughly examines an individual’s experiences through key moments in U.S. history really be all made up? 

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Is Forrest actually based on a real person? The short answer is yes, loosely. Forrest is part fact and part fiction. 

Forrest’s experience in the Vietnam War is loosely based on a real-life veteran’s.

 "This one day, we was out walking, like always. And then, just like that, somebody turned off the rain and the sun come out.” These are the famous introductory lines to the devastating ambush scene

Only seconds later, shots fired from all around Forrest’s platoon, providing a cinematic exploration of how terrible the Vietnam War was for soldiers at the mercy of unknown territory. 

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Cinematic moments like these may seem too horrible for reality, but the fact is that the Vietnam War was much worse than how Forrest Gump portrays it. 

The person who inspired this part of Forrest’s history is real-life veteran Sammy Lee Davis. In fact, the footage of Lyndon B. Johnson awarding Forrest the Medal of Honor for his bravery in Vietnam is real footage of Sammy Davis’ ceremony. Tom Hanks' head was simply superimposed over his.

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Sammy’s ambush experience was a bit different from Forrest’s.

Sammy’s unit was attacked in Vietnam in the early morning hours of November 19, 1967. Battery C was ambushed by heavy mortar fire and ground assault. Davis took control of the howitzer nearby after seeing how close the Vietcong had come, but the force of a blast threw him into a nearby foxhole. 

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In what he thought was a dying attempt to stop approaching forces from coming closer, he fired one last round and successfully hit the enemy. All out of rounds, but still being fired on by mortars, he used all he had left: a propaganda shell. 

After hearing shouts from across the river, he took an inflatable mattress and paddled up the bank, followed by other American GIs. They came across three wounded soldiers. He administered morphine and stayed with two of them providing covering fire while the other GIs took the most wounded back across the river.

Eventually, he got the other two to safety as well and continued the fight with the rest of the howitzer team.

Forrest and Sammy did share a similar injury, however. Sammy was unfortunately hit by friendly fire in the back and buttocks. He was awarded the Medal of Honor by LBJ exactly a year later.

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Forrest is also based on Winston Groom’s childhood friends.

Sammy wasn’t the only one who provided inspiration for the character of Forrest. The story of Forrest Gump was originally a novel written by author Winston Groom. The book is dedicated to his two childhood friends Jimbo Meador and George Radcliff, whose speech patterns are similar to Forrest’s.

Winston also playfully jokes that his two friends are, “...the two biggest idiots I know.” George gave an equally playful retort, calling him a liar.

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When it comes to shrimp, Jimbo is the main source of inspiration. Jimbo had a river delta boat and seafood processing job just like Forrest. Though he didn’t work with shrimp, he did know a lot about it. 

“Although he never did any shrimp farming, he was always interested in it, and we used to talk about it a lot,” Winston stated. “Jimbo knows everything there is to know about shrimp."

Winston continued, "We used to have lunch about once a week, and it occurred to me after one of these conversations while I was writing Forrest, ‘What better thing to do than make Forrest a shrimp farmer?” 

After these facts came to light, Jimbo was inundated with interview requests. After David Letterman’s producers contacted him he said enough was enough and put the kibosh on that.

Forrest is still a fictional character.

Even though elements of real people were used to create the character of Forrest, Winston’s friend Jimbo will tell you that the story is fiction, mostly because he doesn’t want to be associated with the character. But maybe he’s missing the point of Forrest’s character. 

Yes, he is naive. But the film proves him to be a good man who always looks to do the right thing.

And that’s all we have to say about that. 

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