Monthly Archives: June 2011

A Family Visit Sabbatical

Dear Readers,

My older son James and his family are back in the States after a 6 year sojourn overseas. They are staying with us for the duration of his wife’s State Department-mandated two month “Home Leave”. We have a 4 year old grand daughter and a 4 month old grand son to get better acquainted with, and so, I will take a couple of weeks “off” from the pleasant but demanding weekly duty of posting to this blog.

Let this be an opportunity for any of you who desire to contribute a posting. I’ll happily give you space–and acknowledgment! Don’t hesitate to suggest topics for my future ruminations. Leave a comment, or send me an email.

In the nonce, I hope your summer is getting off to a very good start.

Making Movies in Old Hospitals

Since the 1997 closure of the Mare Island Navy Yard, Vallejo city officials have enjoyed modest success in “repurposing” parts of the island as a movie shooting site. Just in the past week or so, a movie company working on a project tentatively named The Master used a portion of the Mare Island Naval Hospital, buildings H-80/81,

Mare Island Naval Hospital (1944) Official U S Navy Photograph NARA II, College Park MD (cropped)

for their work. They also used the ex-Presidential yacht, USS Potomac. Blogger Patricia Kutza, who writes about Vallejo, California, has written about the movie project in our backyard. Here is my quick summary of Mare Island Naval Hospital history that Patricia is using in her piece:

The hospital story begins with Commander David Farragut’s arrival in 1854 to take possession of the Island and establish a navy yard there. He brought with him a map of the island that specified a hospital site near the geographic center of the island.
No hospital was forthcoming, however, as ships–sloop of war Warren, then USS Independence–provided medical facilities for navy and civilian yard workers. By 1864, the need for a land based facility was great enough that local authorities converted an unused granary building to hospital use. This 30 bed facility served as an unofficial naval hospital from 1864 until 1871. Mariano Vallejo’s son Platon, the first Californio to graduate from a US medical school, was one of “eight surgical gentlemen present” to perform life-saving hip surgery there (for a sailor shot during “an anti-piratical action” off the Mexican coast).
The first purpose-built hospital, designed by Philadelphia architect John McArthur, opened in 1871. This “palatial” structure is recognized as the first US Naval Hospital on the west coast. It started with candles, kerosene lamps and large windows for light, rainwater collected from the roof into cisterns, bells and voice tubes for internal communication, and a conference room converted for surgical use on an as-needed basis to electric lighting, a continual and reliable water supply piped 25 miles from Green Valley, telephones and electric call bells and a purpose-built operating room–quite some technological revolution! It served until it was seriously damaged in the (6.5, estimated) Mare Island Earthquake of 1898.
Congress immediately appropriated funds for a new hospital. It opened in 1901, and is today the central structure (H-1) on the hospital grounds. This was of wood construction: the DC architect W M Poindexter was intent that it should withstand earthquake. The doctors, however, worried almost from the beginning about fire, and militated ceaselessly with the Bureau in Washington for construction of fireproof structures. The first of these, opened in 1928 were H-72 and H-73 (the Sick Officers’ Quarters) to the right of H-1 as you face it. H-80-81, lying to the left of H-1 as you face it followed in 1938-41. Hospital capacity stood at about 870 beds at the beginning of World War II, but had expanded, with the addition of annex facilities, to more than 2300 at its peak. Many famous people visited the hospital during the war. These include Eleanor Roosevelt and entertainers like Bob Hope. The Mare Island facility was named the west coast amputation center for wounded from the Pacific theater of war, and became famous for artificial limbs made of modern materials like plastics.
The closure of the hospital had been foreordained as early as 1939, when then-Surgeon General of the Navy Vice Admiral Ross McIntire ordered a search for a new hospital location. The site identified went on to become the Oak Knoll Naval Hospital. The Mare Island facility closed in 1957. Its buildings were later taken over by the Navy’s Schools Command and used for instructional and administrative spaces until Navy Yard closure in 1997. Touro University now owns the hospital structures: the last World War II construction, a recreational facility then named after the hospital’s WWII commander, Owens, is now called Lander Hall, and is an instructional space for the University. The nurses residence with lovely mission style touches, H-78 (1939), now serves as an administrative office building and a student lounge.
Here’s an example of how we, as local “content experts” (whether amateur or professional) can help get the accurate historical word out to our communities.
©2011 Thomas L Snyder

Navy Innovations in Burn Care C. 1942.

On Christmas Day, 1942, the U S Naval Hospital at Mare Island, California, received 179 patients, the first casualties to arrive after the Japanese attack on Naval and Army facilities in Hawaii.(1)

Evolution of Burn Therapy

Humans have suffered from burns since the discovery of fire. The earliest western description of topical burn therapy is found in the Ebers Papyrus (~1500 BCE). This detailed the sequential application of black mud, boiled cow dung, and other similarly disgusting substances.(3) To Hippocrates is attributed the avoidance of infection by simple cleansing of burn wounds with clear water or wine. Rhazes (9th C) popularized “white ointment” made of white lead, rose oil and wax, while Avicenna at about the same time recommended cooling burn wounds (to relieve pain) with ice water. The French barber-surgeon Ambroise Pare’ (1582) noted that onions or onion juice applied to burns prevented the formation of blisters; this treatment was used in the Russian army into World War II. (4) Various applications continued to be advocated up through the early 20th Century. While World War I surgeons continued the use of a variety of ointments, often paraffin-based, they also struggled to prevent infection, which had become the scourge of burn patients. The use of tannic acid applications became fashionable in the 1930s.(3)

Navy Innovation

In the Pearl Harbor action, 60% of patients admitted had clinically significant burns. These patients were treated in a variety of ways, including the tannic acid method. Navy medical officers at Pearl Harbor used silver nitrate, gentian violet and sulfanilimide in mineral oil to fight infection.(5)

Flit Gun Treatment

Flit Gun

When the Pearl Harbor casualties arrived at Mare Island, they received the “Flit gun” treatment, an innovation developed by Dr Ralph Pendleton in his Salt Lake City practice before he was drafted into the Navy. Consisting of a mixture of melted paraffin, petrolatum jelly, castor oil, sulfanilimide, and traces of camphor, menthol and eucalyptus oil, the treatment was sprayed onto the patients’ burns by use of a flit gun, a common device for spraying insecticide. The patients loved the treatment because it gave them immediate relief from their pain, and, because no dressing was required, they didn’t have to suffer the painful removal of gauze dressings “stuck” to their burns.(2)

“Flit” was a mineral oil-based insecticide manufactured by Standard Oil Company of New Jersey. The insecticide was delivered by use of the Flit Gun, and was popularized in advertisements created by the then-unknown cartoonist Dr Seuss. The ads, which highlighted the phrase “Quick, Henry, the Flit!”, ran from 1928 until 1945.

(1) A. L. Clifton, Captain, Medical Corps, U. S. Navy, Commanding Officer, U. S. Naval Hospital, Mare Island, Cal. to Rear Admiral Ross T. McIntire, Navy Surgeon General, December 29, 1941, in National Archives I, Record Group 52 (Records of the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery), Entry 15A, Box 122 File NH15 (A1-1 to L9-3) 1936 – 1941.
(2) “Medicine: Burns at Mare Island”, Time Magazine, November 16, 1942, found on line at,9171,932877-1,00.html, accessed 10 June 2011.
(3) Fernandez, Roberto J., “The Historical Evolution of Burn Surgery”, submitted for the 2010 Howard A Graney Competition for Undergraduate Writing in the History of Surgery,, accessed 11 June 2011.
(4) Hauben, D J, and D Mahler, “On the history of the treatment of burns”, Burns 7,  No. 6, pp 383-388 (1981).
(5) “The History of the Medical Department of the United States Navy in World War II – A Narrative and Pictoral Volume” (Navmed P-5031, Volume I, p 64. Washington, GPO, 1953.

© 2011 Thomas L Snyder

The U. S. Navy’s “Phantom” World War II Hospitals in California, Part the Final

In earlier posts, I discussed World War II Navy Surgeon General Ross McIntire’s anxiety to have enough beds on the west coast to care for sick and wounded sailors and Marines from the Pacific Theater of Operations, and the steps he took to create the beds required. In this post, I complete the California story with brief comments on hospitals constructed in southern California that became “permanent” facilities.

U. S. Naval Hospital San Diego

While Navy medicine had a presence in San Diego from 1914 in the form of field hospitals and dispensaries, it was only in 1922 that a proper Naval Hospital with 396 beds came into commission.  By 1929 as series of expansions resulted in a bed capacity of 1,030 beds.

Naval Hospital San Diego, c. 1923. (San Diego Veterans' Memorial Center website)

Wartime construction expanded the facility substantially, resulting in an authorized bed capacity of 10,499 (and a maximum recorded patient census of 12,014) at the end of hostilities. (1)  The Naval Hospital moved to its current location in the mid-1980s.

U. S. Naval Hospital Santa Margarita, Oceanside

This 1534 bed facility, located on the shore of Lake O’Niel on the Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base, was commissioned in 1943.(2) It survived the end of the war, and served people associated with the base until a new hospital was opened nearby in 1973. Construction of a state-of-the-art 56 bed hospital is currently under way, with an opening date of 2014.

Naval Hospital Santa Margarita (National Archives College Park, MD)


Naval Hospital Corona

The day before the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Navy purchased the facility, built in 1923 as a luxury resort hotel (The Norconian), after it fell on hard times due to the great depression. Commissioned on 15 December 1941(3), it had a total of 18 patients when the first element of Mayo Clinic physicians arrived in June 1942, and 2000 when they left in 1944.(4) Largely a convalescent facility utilizing the spa facilities of the former hotel, its maximum bed capacity approached 5000 by war’s end. The hospital closed briefly before the Korean war, but reopened to care for patients from that conflict. Final closure came in 1957. In 1962, the State of California converted it for use as a drug rehabilitation facility, and later as a womens’ prison. The facility now lies fallow, with the Lake Norconian Club Foundation and others looking for the money necessary to rehabilitate the majestic buildings.(5)

U. S. Naval Hospital Long Beach 

This hospital was commissioned with 2281 beds in 1942.(2) It survived the end of the war, and was replaced with a new facility in the late 1960s.(6) It was closed as a result of the BRAC process 31 March 1994.(7)

U. S. Naval Hospital Long Beach (National Archives, College Park, MD)

(1) Unpublished historical summary of U. S. Naval Hospital San Diego, History Library, U. S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, Washington D.C.
(2) The History of the Medical Department of the United States Navy in World War II (NAVMED P-5031, Volume 1, GPO, 1953.
(3) CNIC//Naval Weapons Station Seal Beach, About Detachment Corona,, accessed 2 June 2011.
(4) Mayo Naval Medical Units in World War II-Reminiscences of Mark B. Coventry, M.D., May 1970, by permission of May Historical Unit, Mayo Foundation, Rochester, MN.
(5) “Norco to decide fate of historic landmark” [Riverside CA] Press-Enterprise, 19 October 2005, clipping.
(6) Information on the hospital is hard to find on the internet. I did find an allusion to the new Long Beach Hospital (in which I did a two week Reserve duty in the late 1980s) in this website:, accessed 2 June 2011, owned by James “Doc” Rockett.
(7) California State Military Department, The California State Military Museum, “Historic California Posts-Naval Station, Long Beach”, at, accessed 2 June 2011.
© 2011 Thomas L Snyder