Norco in battle with Navy over historic significance of WWII military hospital – press enterprise


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Kevin Bash wants the world to know a WWII story about accomplishments at Norco Naval Hospital that the Navy says are not historically significant.

Bash, the mayor of Norco, and the town worked for three years to get what was officially called the U.S. Naval Hospital, Corona, listed on the National Register of Historic Places for his many innovations in the treatment of wounded soldiers. It was also a place where we advanced a bit of social justice.

This latest incident centers on a 1942 conference at the nearby Corona Rotary Club in which Captain Leslie Marshall, general manager of the new hospital, delivered a bomb to an audience of mostly businessmen.

“All of a sudden he says, ‘It’s tricky but necessary to mention,’” Larry Key recalled in an oral history recorded in 2008. “’One of our black patients who fought well in Pearl Harbor was (Corona) cafes. ‘”

Then he got very serious, Key recalled of the June 19, 1942 speech: “’If this practice continues, then Corona should be banned from the Navy. “

A look at the Lake Norconian Resort which in December 1941 was taken over by the Navy for a medical center intended to operate during World War II and later the Korean War. (Photos provided by Kevin Bash)

This was no small shock to those whose livelihoods depended on the patronage of the employees and patients of the hospital, which would soon reach 5,000 people. At that time, many companies routinely refused to serve African Americans and Latinos, even in uniform, in Corona, which had been a hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activity, Bash noted.

Inspired by the threat of Captain Mitchell, Helen Stanley, Nettie Whitcomb and other members of the Corona’s Women’s Improvement Society took action.

“They went from cafe to cafe and said if they pick up on this nonsense, no one from Corona is going to shop with them,” Key said. “All of a sudden we had African Americans, Mexicans, everyone shopping downtown. After a while you didn’t notice what color a person was; you saw a uniform.

Patients at the Naval Hospital in Norco were able to exercise in the pool where international swimming and diving competitions were held before the war. (Photo provided by Kevin Bash)

It was a similar story to the new hospital which was run by the commanding officer, Captain Harold Jensen, himself a survivor of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

The Navy then had very few African Americans – many were cooks or held dangerous jobs such as loading explosives. But at Norco, injured black sailors were treated on an equal footing with other patients – unusual in an era when African Americans, even in uniform, were separated and regularly treated as citizens of the United States. second class.

The Navy had taken over the failing Norconian Lake resort in December 1941 to open the hospital and expand its facilities. The general hospital, made up of a large contingent of doctors, many of them from the famous Mayo Clinic, was the Navy’s main medical center in the Pacific for combat casualties as well as for the treatment of rheumatic fever, tuberculosis and polio and paraplegic care.

It operated until 1949, when it was closed, to reopen during the Korean War, and closed permanently in 1957. The Navy has since sold parts of the hospital grounds for what now includes l Norco Town Hall and Community College and a State Prison. as well as the active Naval Surface Warfare Center, Corona Division. An adjacent missile test center that was built after the war is vacant.

READ MORE: How the Navy hospital in Norco was essential during WWII

Bash explained that the addition of the hospital – the last remaining example of a WWII naval general hospital on the west coast – to the national registry has been challenged by navy officials. Several years ago, the state’s Historic Resources Commission unanimously supported the nomination, but its final approval on the Federal Register was blocked by the Navy, Bash said.

Karnig Ohannessian, a federal conservation officer in the Navy in Washington, DC, wrote to the State Historic Preservation Office on November 29, 2020, that the city’s nomination did not meet the criteria for inclusion in the National Register . The Navy concluded that the hospital’s past was not historically significant, Bash said.

What annoyed Bash and the city’s cultural resources consultant Bill Wilkman most was how the Navy, in its responses, gave so little credit to what he believed to be the remarkable accomplishments of the Norco military personnel.

The two officers of Norco Naval Hospital in the first months of its existence were the Commanding Officer, Captain Harold Jensen, left, and Captain Leslie Marshall. Captain Jensen came to Norco after serving on a hospital ship that was among the ships attacked at Pearl Harbor. (Photos provided by Kevin Bash)

The hospital not only treated thousands of injured, but also broke new ground with new antibiotics such as penicillin and streptomycin to advance the treatment of serious illnesses. The Navy’s response was that other military hospitals during the war also experimented with penicillin and other drugs, so what was happening locally was not unique.

The Navy has “downplayed, omitted and distorted well-documented research,” said Bash, “with the clear intention of whitewashing and burying what we believe to be the remarkable, revolutionary and historic achievements of medical missile development and the Cold War”.

Officially, the city’s most recent effort has been to send an April request to Julianne Polanco, the state’s historic preservation officer, asking her to forward her request directly to the federal custodian of the National Registry of historical places. Wilkman said if Polanco was convinced by the city’s documentation, she could send the request bypassing the Navy’s objections.

However, a message from the Navy may indicate a slight break in the cold between them and Norco.

In response to our request, Navy Public Affairs Officer Gregory T. Smith responded three weeks ago in an email also sent to Bash, expressing a desire to “resolve this matter through the appropriate channels. “, and suggesting that the crux of the matter was only a problem. “Professional disagreement between historians”.

Bash said he was somewhat encouraged by the Navy’s response, saying that a “face-to-face discussion” involving key city officials, the Navy and possibly the National Historic Preservation Office could result in a satisfactory resolution.

“Unfortunately, such a meeting has been requested on several occasions from the Federal Naval Preservation Officer,” Bash said.

The first patients of the Navy Hospital were accommodated in the old rooms of the Lake Norconian Resort. They were treated by doctors from the famous Mayo Clinic. (Photos provided by Kevin Bash)

In its April letter to Polanco, the city stressed the need to add Norco Hospital to the national register: “Failure to expand the existing historic district would be to deny an important living history which must be recognized so that current generations and futures can better understand and appreciate the history of our country during World War II and the Cold War.

The next time

In two weeks, we’ll explore how the treatment of paraplegics and people with physical limitations at Norco led to the creation of what is today the international sport of wheelchair basketball. A 1947 match at Norco was a key milestone for many with such limitations and led to the next Paralympic Games which will open next week in Japan.

Joe Blackstock writes on the history of the Inland Empire. He can be contacted at [email protected] or Twitter @JoeBlackstock. Check out some of our columns from the past on Inland Empire Stories on Facebook at www.facebook.com/IEHistory

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