World War II Army Hospitals in Washington

  • By Duane Colt Denfeld, Ph.D.
  • Posted 6/26/2013
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 10111

Leading up to and during World War II, three army general hospitals were constructed in Washington to treat those wounded or injured in the conflict. The first to open was Barnes General Hospital on the north side of Vancouver Barracks in Clark County, which took its first patients in 1941. In 1943, additional general hospitals opened in Spokane and Walla Walla. All three facilities were wood-frame temporary construction and were meant to be removed at war's end, but the facility at Vancouver Barracks reopened and remained in service as a veterans' hospital into the 1980s. In addition to the three general hospitals, the army acquired a hotel in Seattle for conversion to a station hospital and the Army Air Force took over vacant Fort George Wright as a convalescent center.

More Beds Needed

In 1939 the U.S. Army had only 4,136 general-hospital beds and 8,234 hospital beds at post or station medical facilities. The general hospitals could handle complex medical care and surgeries; station hospitals had more limited capabilities. Additional facilities were needed, and would be built at several locations around the country.

Many of the new hospitals, including those in Washington at Vancouver Barracks, Spokane, and Walla Walla, were built to a standard plan called the "cantonment type." This was a dispersed design, with sufficient space between buildings to prevent the spread of fire. The design called for one-story, wood-frame buildings that included wards, surgical centers, a cafeteria, and a chapel, all connected by covered or enclosed walkways. A headquarters building stood at the front of the hospital and on each side of it were quarters for doctors and nurses.

In September 1940, 10 new military general hospitals were approved for construction around the country and more would follow. The general hospitals were located near major transportation systems, ports of embarkation, railroads, and airfields. With the 1940-1941 buildup, the number of beds was increased to 74,250. At the wartime peak, the army operated 65 hospitals with a total of 318,000 beds. By November 1945 the number of patients had dropped dramatically, and this led to the closure of 23 hospitals, including the three opened in Washington during the war.  

Barnes General Hospital, Vancouver

Construction of the general hospital at Vancouver Barracks on the north side of the city of Vancouver started on January 9, 1941 and the facility was ready to take its first patients on April 16 of that year. Initially it had 65 buildings with 705 beds, but it expanded to accommodate 1,547 beds. The hospital was named in honor of Major General Joseph K. Barnes (1817-1883), a doctor who had served as the 12th surgeon general of the army, from 1864 to 1882. His years of service encompassed the Seminole Wars, Mexican-American War, and Civil War. Twice he was stationed at Fort Vancouver, and he was there in 1861 when he received orders to report to Washington, D.C., to become surgeon general. Barnes was at the bedside of President Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) as he lay dying after being shot by John Wilkes Booth (1838-1865).

Some of the first patients from World War II combat to arrive at Barnes General Hospital were wounded or injured during the campaign in the Aleutian Islands. The Vancouver and Portland communities helped support the facility, and the United Service Organizations (USO) held hospital dances there. The Red Cross had a very active handicrafts program, teaching arts and crafts to more than 6,000 patients during the course of the war. In July 1945 movie star and popular soldier pinup Rita Hayward (1918-1987) visited Barnes, then stopped by Baxter General Hospital in Spokane and hospitals in Seattle.

Barnes drew many of its staff from personnel at Washington and Oregon civilian hospitals who were called to active duty. All three Washington general hospitals also made extensive use of members of the Women's Army Corps (WAC), organized into detachments as laboratory, surgical, X-ray, and dental technicians.

Barnes General Hospital closed on February 28, 1946, but reopened as an annex to the Portland Veterans Administration hospital in 1947. After considerable renovation, it continued to serve during the Vietnam War, with some wards being converted to drug-treatment centers. By 1976 it was the last wood-frame veterans' hospital in the nation. In the 1980s new construction replaced the Barnes facility, and the site became the Vancouver campus of the Portland Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

Baxter General Hospital, Spokane

On March 3, 1943, a 200-building hospital with 1,500 beds opened on Spokane's north side. The hospital grew to more than 300 buildings and 2,001 beds on a 200-acre site. It was named Baxter General Hospital in honor of a Civil War surgeon, Brigadier General Jedediah H. Baxter (1837-1890), who rose in rank and responsibility to become surgeon general in August 1890, but died four months later of a stroke.

Baxter General Hospital had 800 doctors, nurses, and military staff, and cared for soldiers from the Northwest during their final stages of recovery. The hospital emphasized a return by the wounded to civilian life and drew upon the community to help reintegrate patients back into society. Junior hostesses from the Spokane United Service Organizations held dances and came to the hospital to spend time and talk with the patients.

Baxter also held impressive ceremonies to award medals for valor and wartime injuries. In July 1943, six veterans of the Attu campaign were awarded the Order of the Purple Heart. In the group was a Shelton native, Private First Class Donald B. White (1914-1969). White recovered from his wounds and returned to Shelton to be a logger.

To brighten Christmas, local groups provided trees and parties, and the American Legion gave gifts to the hospitalized soldiers. Among the many distinguished visitors to the hospital was Richard F. Wood (1920-2002), son of Lord Halifax (1881-1953), the British ambassador to the United States. Wood could relate well to the patients, as he had lost both his legs in the North African campaign earlier in the war.

Both Baxter at Spokane and McCaw General Hospital at Walla Walla had German prisoner-of- war camps attached. At Baxter, the prisoner camp was in the southwest portion of the hospital grounds. The prisoners took care of the grounds and worked in the laundry and other hospital areas.

Between 1943 and the fall of 1945 Baxter General Hospital treated more than 20,000 patients. As the wounded recovered and returned to civilian life, the general hospitals were closed. The last patients departed Baxter on November 8, 1945, and the hospital closed December 12, 1945. Most of the buildings were sold and removed, except for eight buildings occupied by the Naval and Marine Corps Reserve Center. In 1964 these buildings were demolished and a new center constructed.

On December 6, 1945, it was announced that Spokane would receive a new, 200-bed veterans' hospital. Construction was completed in 1948 on the southeast portion of the former Baxter General Hospital site. Since that time, the Spokane Veterans Affairs Memorial Hospital has been upgraded and expanded.

McCaw General Hospital, Walla Walla

McCaw General Hospital, a 1,502-bed general hospital located near Fort Walla Walla, opened on March 5, 1943. It was named to honor Brigadier General Walter D. McCaw (1863-1939), who received the Silver Star for valor during the Spanish American War.

The standard hospital layout with widely separated wards proved wise at McCaw when, in June 1944, a fire damaged the headquarters building but spread no further. The only casualty was a Walla Walla fireman, Albert Schonleber (1897-1944), who died of a heart attack shortly after the blaze was controlled.

The World War II hospitals were often the scene of moving award ceremonies. Typical was an event at McCaw in September 1945 that included a retreat parade. At the parade, Second Lieutenant George W. Bailey (1925-1994) of Seattle was awarded the Silver Star for valor in action. He was a navigator on a B-17 Flying Fortress over Germany when he sustained a serious leg wound, but continued his duties uninterrupted. Bailey spent five months at McCaw receiving treatment.

Other events at the facility included weddings. Seattle Medal of Honor recipient Arnold Bjorklund (1918-1979), who spent eight months recovering at McCaw following seven months in other hospitals, noticed an attractive woman visiting a fellow soldier. She was Darl Sawyer (1919-1997) of Walla Walla, who was visiting her brother. Bjorklund met Sawyer; they married in May 1945 and moved to Seattle and later Vancouver, where Bjorklund worked at a chemical company.

Walla Walla native son General Jonathan Wainwright IV (1883-1953) visited McCaw General Hospital on November 10, 1945. He delivered a speech to patients assembled in the Red Cross Recreation Hall. General Wainwright, still weak himself after being held as a prisoner of war by Japanese forces, encouraged the patients to take care of themselves and strive for full recovery. Soon after his visit, on November 25, 1945, the last patient departed the hospital, which closed that same day after having treated more than 14,000 patients during the course of the war. The hospital's medical specialties were neuropsychiatry, orthopedics, and general surgery. Lieutenant Maxwell W. Steel Jr. (1918-2009) gained attention for his surgical skills while at McCaw, was eventually promoted to major general, and went on to become deputy surgeon general of the army.

Following the McCaw closure, its buildings were sold. On March 20, 1947, two of the structures were moved across the road to the veterans' hospital. The McCaw chapel was one of the relocated buildings and survives today. Located on the former McCaw site is Walla Walla's Poplar Street extension.

Seattle Area Station Hospital, New Richmond Hotel

The New Richmond Hotel was constructed in Neoclassical Revival style in 1911 at 4th Avenue and Main Street in Seattle. The Army Medical Corps took over the 300-room building in February 1943, and the Army Corps of Engineers let a contract to convert it to a hospital. The lobby, with its fancy marble and wood paneling, became the mess hall; the banquet hall received institutional stoves and cooking equipment and served as the hospital kitchen.

The second floor was modified into operating rooms, an X-ray room, and a few ward rooms. Floors three to six became wards with a maximum of three beds in a room. Floors seven to nine functioned as housing for the staff of 145. The first patients arrived in July 1943 from Alaska and the Aleutian campaign. As a station hospital, the New Richmond handled the less serious cases brought to the Seattle Port of Embarkation.

At Fort Lewis in Pierce County, a semi-permanent medical center (a combined convalescent and general hospital) opened in 1944. It became Madigan General Hospital and Medical Center, with a full range of medical care, including a convalescent facility for wounded pilots and aircrews. At Fort Lawton in Seattle's Magnolia neighborhood a cantonment-style station hospital was built. In June 1944, following the opening of these facilities, the New Richmond station hospital became surplus and the building was returned to its pre-war owners. Using rent paid by the army, they refurbished the hotel before reopening it in August 1944. In 2011 the hotel building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places; as of 2013 it is used as Federal Housing Administration low-income apartments.

Spokane Army Air Force Regional Convalescent Hospital

In 1943 Fort George Wright in Spokane stood vacant after its army infantry unit was shipped overseas. The Army Air Force obtained the post for use as a regional convalescent hospital, where pilots and air crews recovering from battle fatigue or injuries could recover. The fort barracks became the hospital wards.

Patients were kept busy with a schedule of recovery activities, such as crafts, sports, hunting, and outdoor recreation. Typical of the patients recovering from injuries was Lieutenant Homer Fred Harrington (b. 1917), a pilot from Seattle. He had been seriously burned in a fighter crash in New Guinea and spent a year and a half recovering in military hospitals. Following treatment and convalescence he returned to active duty in early 1945 and remained in the air force.

The hospital at Fort George Wright closed in 1949 and was moved to Spokane Air Force Base, now Fairchild Air Force Base. In 2013 Fort George Wright is home to the Mukogawa Fort George Wright Institute, an intensive English and American culture program of Mukogawa Women's University.


Sources: Clarence McKittrick Smith, United States Army in World War II, The Technical Services, The Medical Department: Hospitalization and Evacuation, Zone of Interior (Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History United States Army, 1989); "New Army Hospital Starts Operation," The Oregonian, April 19, 1941, p. 8; "New Richmond Hotel Is Taken Over by Army," The Seattle Daily Times, February 3, 1943, p. 24; "Halifax' Son to Visit U.S. Wounded," The Seattle Daily Times, July 29, 1943, p. 24; "Rita Hayward Visits Barnes," The Oregonian, July 25, 1945, p. 9; "Hospitalized Vets Taught Handicrafts by Red Cross," The Oregonian, November 25, 1945, p. 45; "Closure Near for Barnes," The Oregonian, February 26, 1946, p. 8; "Hospital Fire Claims Life," The Oregonian, June 4, 1944, p. 14; "New Richmond Hotel," Washington State Department of Archaeology and Historic Preservation website accessed May 14, 2012 (http://www.dahp.wa.gov/blog/2011/04/recent-national-and-state-register-listings-march-2011/new-richmond-hotel/); "Honor Medal Winner Winged by Cupid; He Builds in Ballard," The Seattle Daily Times, April 27, 1945, p.17; "Army to Close 23 Hospitals," The Seattle Daily Times, November 6, 1945, p. 11.

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