Pearl Harbor Day – An Observation at Norco, California

Today I had the singular honor to speak at a Pearl Harbor Day observation on the site of a World War II Navy Hospital in the Norconian resort in Norco, Riverside County, California. Organized by Kevin Bash, who has been arranging these observations for five years, it was an extraordinary event: a color guard of veterans from a nearby VA cemetery – all over 50 years old; a chorus from the local community college; a small Navy brass ensemble; a Marine Corps JROTC drill team; speakers telling the history of the site. The crowd was marked by three Pearl Harbor survivors, a widow of one and a daughter of another. Veterans from every foreign conflict since World War II were in attendance, as well as a good sized crowd of family and supporters. Below are the comments I made.

The Lake Norconian Resort - WW II U S Navy Hospital Corona

Naval Hospitals in Norco and the World 
I am humbled to be with you in this striking setting on this day of memory. Occasions like these give us time to pause – time to reflect on the valor manifested by so many who served, and were cared for, at the Naval Hospital that occupied the structures nearby us World War II. 
Planning for a large number of casualties from the war in the Pacific – one Naval medical authority mentioned an expectation of a million men wounded or killed in then anticipated invasion of the Japanese home islands – Navy Surgeon General Ross McIntire sought out “ready made” places for men to recover from the physical and emotional wounds of the war. For this purpose, he used an old idea: rent, lease or purchase hotels, especially hotels with spa facilities – ideal for the therapy of recovery. The Norconian was the first hotel thus secured, with the contract signed 2 days after the day of infamy we observe today. These elegant facilities were quickly converted to hospital use so that, by early 1943, with the arrival of a team of physicians from the Mayo Clinic, the hospital could receive casualties of war. In the autumn of 1943 hospital occupancy reached about 600 patients transferred from nearby Naval Hospitals. By 1944, that daily census averaged around 2000. 
Meanwhile, Navy medicine was ramping up all over the US and later, worldwide. Starting in 1939 with just 841 doctors, 255 dentists, 439 nurses and 4267 pharmacist mates, the Navy medical establishment grew to more than 14000 MDs, 7,000 dentists, nearly 11000 nurses and 132500 corpsmen at its peak on VJ day. Needless to say, the vast majority of health care professionals serving at the height of the war were reservists who were called up – or drafted – from every state in the Union. 
The first patients from Pearl Harbor – 197 sailors and Marines with serious burns or multiple broken bones – arrived at the Mare Island Naval Hospital in the San Francisco Bay on Christmas eve.  Mare Island introduced a unique burn treatment invented by a doctor called up from Salt Lake City. Using a “flit gun” invented in the ‘20s for bug spray, this doctor sprayed a mixture of soothing medicines and sulfa antibiotics on the mens’ burns; they noticed immediate, miraculous relief from the terrible pain that they’d experienced before. Doctors at the same hospital, using skilled Mare Island Naval Shipyard  machinists and the latest materials – plastics – developed revolutionary prosthetic limbs. 
The 21 Naval Hospitals existing at war’s beginning – one, at Cañacao in the Philippines was lost when the Japanese invaded, and its medical staff interned under very difficult conditions for the war’s duration – gradually were supplemented with 25 new permanent hospitals in places like Oakland, Long Beach, Santa Margarita Ranch and the Marine Corps Base at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina. 
Intentionally temporary hospitals sprung up to serve two new Naval Training Bases at Farragut Idaho, on scenic Lake Pondaray, and at Sampson New York, on the shore of the lovely Seneca Lake in rural upper New York State; a 2500 bed facility sprung from nowhere on a plain east of San Francisco in Shoemaker, now Dublin, California. Most of those hospitals disappeared soon after the war, but some, like the Naval Hospital Dublin, Ga, constructed in 1945, live today – in the case of Dublin, as a Veterans’ Administration Hospital. 
Convalescent hospitals were based in resort hotels like the Ahwahnee Lodge in Yosemite National Park. The sailors and Marines didn’t particularly like this magnificent location – it was too remote and there were no women about – and Naval authorities ultimately approved the consumption of near beer there, the only place in the entire Navy to officially permit alcohol. Other resort hotels that served hospital duty included places like the Sun Valley Resort, Idaho, the Arrowhead Springs Resort, and even multimillionaire statesman W Averill Harriman’s estate, the magnificent “Arden” on a peaceful rural New York state mountain top. The only Navy hospital commanded by a Rear Admiral, Arden served as a recuperation facility for Navy and Marine Corps officers only. The Navy even procured hospitals in Banning and Beaumont, CA. Built by General Patton when he was training his troops in desert warfare, these spartan facilities, while not particularly popular with their patients, served an invaluable rehabilitation role. 
Though they should not have been, Navy authorities were surprised by the rapid rise in the number of combat fatigue cases – we call it PTSD – Post Traumatic Stress Disease – patients who emerged from the fog of war. On the west coast, a hospital in the San Leandro hills overlooking San Francisco Bay sprung into existence just to care for these veterans. The Navy leased a 200 bed facility recently completed at the Napa State Hospital – and originally intended for TB patients – to care for patients suffering from severe combat-related mental disease as well. 
Overseas, the Navy procured permanent hospitals like the 19th century Royal Victoria Hospital in the UK, and former Japanese facilities on Pacific Islands like Kwajalein for Base Hospitals. Base Hospitals numbered 21 at war’s end. Where no suitable structures stood, the Navy put up 16 Mobile – later called Fleet – Hospitals in such exotic locations as Noumea on New Caladonia and on the island of Guam. 
Back at Norco, perhaps because of its Mayo Clinic staff, later supplemented by doctors from Stanford Medical School, the Naval Hospital, now called Naval Hospital, Corona, began a phase of specialization when in March 1944, Navy authorities designated it a rheumatic fever research center. The doctors at this center – specialists in heart and infectious diseases, using the latest treatment methods, including the then miraculous medicine penicillin, distinguished themselves and the Norco hospital with careful treatment of more than 10,000 patients. Norco’s physicians published many scientific articles in medical journals of the day. Thus knowledge of the advances developed right here behind us were spread throughout the world. 
As the incidence of rheumatic fever began to drop late in 1944, tuberculosis and polio were added to the Norco list of specializations. 
When the war ended, the patients at Norco, like all sailors and Marines, wanted to go home. Hospital census dropped quickly. And while the hospital grew again briefly during the Korean Conflict, its major work had been done. Decreasing patient census, and the Navy’s desire to concentrate on modern facilities, led to the hospital’s closure in October 1957. Today the place stands as a silent and somewhat melancholy monument to the good work that went on there. 
It was noble work. It was work that should remain in our memories for all time. We should see this as hallowed ground, where men and women struggled to heal the diseases and injuries of war. Our duty to their memory, today, is to live lives that are worthy of the work, the valor and the sacrifice they experienced then. 
Thank you very much.

©2011 Thomas L Snyder

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  • Alice Hadley  On 12 Dec 2011 at 19:21

    The US Naval Hospital, Guam (a US territory) was captured by the Japanese Imperial Army on 10 DEC 1941, before the NH Cañacao in the Philippines. It’s staff was interred, and taken to POW camps in Japan in January 1942, where the men stayed until 1945. The 5 Navy Nurse Corps (NNC) nurses were repatriated from Japan in August 1942.

    This year (2011) is the 100th anniversary of NNC on Guam.

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