Back Channels: Honoring a Valley Forge hospital for war veterans
How appropriate that the new occupant of the old Valley Forge General Hospital is a religious school. The Army hospital was dedicated to easing the suffering of tens of thousands of wounded and injured vets, from World War II through Vietnam. Daily, there was healing, and prayers, and miracles.
How appropriate that the new occupant of the old Valley Forge General Hospital is a religious school.
The Army hospital was dedicated to easing the suffering of tens of thousands of wounded and injured vets, from World War II through Vietnam. Daily, there was healing, and prayers, and miracles.
That's a solid foundation for the Valley Forge Christian College, which purchased the property just south of Phoenixville for $1 in 1976, three years after the hospital closed.
Pull up the main drive off Charlestown Road, and there is still a military feel. The road takes you up along the old parade ground, past one- and two-story barrackslike brick buildings and the chapel. Old hospital wards are now dorms, or classrooms and faculty offices.
A commemorative brochure printed for the hospital's 25th anniversary in 1968 says there were 130 buildings at one time, almost all connected by a web of hallways to ease the movement of patients. Those buildings were full right after World War II, with 2,700 patients in residence, and an additional 1,000 there on convalescent leave. All told, the brochure says, "190,000 sick, injured, and wounded Americans" were treated here.
It was a much quieter place last week. About three dozen buildings are left, and more will be replaced as the school continues to grow.
With all that change, there's good reason to follow up on the suggestion by a vet who was treated at the hospital during the Vietnam War. He worries that people who drive by today won't remember those who didn't survive their wounds, or the heroic efforts and dedication of medical personnel.
"The doctors and nurses there were the finest I've ever met," says JC Woodward of Berwyn. "It wasn't about the money for them - it was about saving lives."
Woodward thinks a historical marker is a good way to start in remembering the hospital and its staff. Turns out the school agrees.
Daniel W. Mortensen, VFCC's vice president of finance and development, said he would be happy to work with Woodward on the marker. In fact, the school has been looking at other ways to remember the hospital.
The old chapel is being restored, and Mortensen says one idea is to open a room there featuring hospital memorabilia. They would need help from former patients or staff members to pull it off, though, as there wasn't much left when the school took over the property.
Also, last year, in hopes of giving students a sense of the history of their school, Mortensen produced a DVD based on a 1946 New York Times article that described the hospital's effect on the area. As narrator, Mortensen quotes from the article and uses older and contemporary photos throughout the film. He also included clips from a Hollywood movie, Bright Victory, about a blinded soldier being treated at a Stateside military hospital.
The article describes the first trainload of wounded soldiers to arrive from Africa, Sicily, and Italy in 1943:
"Around 1,200 to 1,300 of us townspeople stood on the bank and watched the Army nurses and the medics lift the stretchers down. I guess there wasn't one of us who didn't have a kid in the service by that time. . . . None of us spoke, as I remember it. We couldn't get past the lumps in our throats. The kids on the stretchers . . . were in pain. There were amputation cases, and boys with their hands and faces all in bandage or in braces of one kind or another."
The hospital specialized in neuropsychiatry, plastic surgery, and caring for the "war blind," the article said. But not all the treatment was scientific.
The article mentions a woman volunteer who sat with a young captain "whose plane had blown up with a load of gasoline. His face was all but gone, and he couldn't see. . . . He was praying to God to let him die. He kept praying it over and over."
The woman responded with her own prayer, "asking God to give this boy the strength to bear his pain." The article continued, she "must've showed him someone wanted mighty strong to have him live. He talked to Mary, and he felt better. . . ."
Woodward has his own memories from his stay in 1968.
One night, there was a dance, with a live band. Staff were hanging out with patients. One vet was in a wheelchair. He was tiny, Woodward recalls, and in a vegetative state, with seemingly no understanding of where he was or why he was there.
At one point, Woodward looked toward the wheelchair. Pretty soon, everyone was looking. The man was tapping his finger.
"There wasn't a dry eye in the place," Woodward says, having to pause in the retelling, moved even after 42 years. "Miraculous is what people were saying."
"There's something about seeing somebody show a sign of life again," he says.
That's a good way to sum up the work at Valley Forge General. And ample reason to remember and honor those efforts.