By Lincoln Cushing, Heritage writer
A huge network of industrial organizations such as those managed by Henry J. Kaiser sometimes results in unexpected convergences and coincidences.
During World War II Henry J. Kaiser directed the enormously productive shipbuilding capacity used to pump out Liberty ships and LST’s (“Landing Ship, Tanks”) to build a small, versatile, and inexpensive aircraft carrier.
The Casablanca-class escort carriers were all built by Kaiser Company, Inc.’s Shipbuilding Division, Vancouver Yard on the Columbia River in Vancouver, Washington. The class was named for the Battle of Casablanca, fought November 8-12, 1942 where the U.S. Navy fought vessels under the control of Nazi-occupied France. The fifty ships produced comprised almost a third of the American carriers built during the war and were launched in less than two years. The ship known as the Alazon Bay while under construction was renamed the USS Casablanca two days before she slid down the ways April 5, 1943. The last of these “baby flattops” launched was the Munda (CVE-104). Five were sunk in action, and none survive today.
Fast forward nineteen years.
Henry Kaiser bought the famous “Jeep” line of rugged vehicles in 1953, and was expanding manufacturing and assembly plants all over the world. In 1962 foreign licenses were issued for factories in Northern Rhodesia, Venezuela, Italy, and…yes, Casablanca, Morocco.
Kaiser sold off Jeep in 1969, but the plant at 84 Boulevard Lalla Yacout Quartier Ben Slimane remains, under ownership of Centrale Automobile Cherifienne CAC (SODIA Jeep).
by Lincoln Cushing, Heritage writer
What does one do with a decommissioned hospital? When Portland’s beloved Bess Kaiser hospital was closed down (to become the American headquarters of the Adidas sporting gear company) several 40-foot shipping containers of recycled components – doors, fixtures, cabinets, even the proverbial kitchen sink – were salvaged and crated up.
Community volunteers and hospital staff worked with the Portland Rebuilding Project and Mercy Corps to ship these still-usable items to far-flung health care facilities in Central America, the Balkans, and Central Asia.
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by Lincoln Cushing, Heritage writer
Industrial photography can reveal the sublime in the mundane. This image documents one of the newly-built recreational facilities created for the workers in the Kaiser shipyards during World War II. It was understood that sports and activities were essential to physical, mental, and community health.
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by Lincoln Cushing, Heritage writer
How do you update a hospital facility without cramping needed services? When the Kaiser Permanente Oakland hospital needed to expand at the end of the 1960s, they built their current modern tower on top of the previous structure – and patients didn’t have to go elsewhere for care.
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Henry J. Kaiser’s youth included canoeing on New York’s Lake Placid and serving as tour guide on a sightseeing boat in Daytona Beach, Florida. But he also liked to do things fast, and he always harbored an affection for speedboats.
Later in life, after Henry had achieved success in his construction businesses, he and his son Edgar enjoyed racing boats at Lake Tahoe. One of their first competitive boats was the “step hydroplane” (an early design effort to achieve high-speed stability) Miss Aluminum II, built in 1933. Renamed Fleur Du Lac (G-19) for Henry’s Tahoe estate, in 1948 she went to Washington D.C. to compete in the President’s Cup.
Henry also maintained a summer home back at Lake Placid, where he pursued racing with his neighbor and friend band leader Guy Lombardo. In 1949 the Ticonderoga Sentinel noted:
“For the second successive week end, Henry J. Kaiser has visited Lake Placid to check on the progress of his two big speed boats. Guy Lombardo also appeared here Saturday to try out the massive 32-foot Aluminum First, with which he will try to break the world’s mile straightaway record in the time trials.”
That didn’t happen, but in 1971 the Lake Placid Sports Council mounted a plaque honoring their local heroes.
The Kaisers would not achieve racing victory until 1954, when the three-point hydroplane Scooter (U-12) powered by a 1750 horsepower V-12 Allison engine driven by Kaiser Industries welder Jack Regas won the Mapes Trophy unlimited class at Lake Tahoe. She ran second, first, and second and posted the fastest lap at 88.748 miles per hour. Henry immediately retired the boat and built a second, the Scooter Too with a 3,420 cubic inch 24-cylinder Allison engine, producing a staggering estimated 4,000 horsepower – but she never won a race.
Things turned around in 1956. Edgar Kaiser’s unlimited-class three-point racing hydroplane Hawaii Kai III (U-8, named after Henry J. Kaiser’s Waikiki Beach hotel) won the first of six consecutive races, the William A. Rogers Memorial Cup trophy in Washington, D.C.
She was painted Henry’s classic pink and powered by a V-12 Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. The following year she won the national championship and set the water speed record at the official American Powerboat Association runs in Seattle, Washington – 195.329 miles an hour, a bar that would stand for five years.
As with most of his goals, Henry J. Kaiser achieved what he sought, and he eventually retired from the racing circuit. His last boating venture was to build six massive touring catamarans in Hawaii, all named after his wife.
by Lincoln Cushing, Heritage writer
Henry J. Kaiser was an industrialist, health plan founder…and lifesaver.
On July 3, 1951, at 69 years of age, Henry J. Kaiser sped off in a speedboat to rescue his wife Alyce “Ale” Kaiser and founding Permanente physicians Dr. Sidney Garfield and Dr. Cecil Cutting when their catamaran capsized in the frigid waters of Lake Tahoe.
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By Lincoln Cushing, Heritage writer
Dr. Charles Grossman, one of the 12 original partners of what was originally called the Northern Permanente Group (Oregon and Washington), passed away July 16, 2013, at age 98.
Dr. Grossman came to Vancouver, Wash., in October 1944 to join the 45 physicians of the Northern Permanente Foundation hospital. It was here that the wartime health plan covering 60,000 Kaiser shipyard workers in Oregon and Washington was in full swing. This was the formative crucible of what would later become the public Permanente Health Plan. Grossman, having just completed his medical residency at Yale, at which he took part in the first U.S. clinical trial with penicillin, joined the pioneering medical group “…induced he said, by the annual salary of $8,400—considerably more than Yale had offered.”[i]
Northwest physician and historian Dr. Ian MacMillan recounts a story of those early years: Dr. George Bookatz, a talented surgeon with a flair for humor, once admitted “a male with chest abscess” for a drainage procedure. The patient was Grossman’s dog, an adoptee from the local animal shelter. Its vigorous protests prompted another patient awaiting treatment to remark with alarm that the suffering patient in the adjoining cubicle had begun to bark like a dog.[ii] While treating the men and women in the shipyards Dr. Grossman looked into the prevalence of pneumonia, where the incidence was 18.5 per 1,000 employees, a figure much higher than among the workers’ families and almost twice that that Dr. Morris Collen was finding in the Richmond, Calif., shipyards. Dr. Grossman concluded that certain workplace conditions played a role, with painters and chippers appearing to be at highest risk. [iii] But the samplings were too small and the time period too short to arrive at any definitive conclusions.
When the war ended and the shipyards closed, the Northwest group suffered the same attrition as did the Oakland hospital. Dr. Grossman noted that within six weeks after V-J Day (August 14, 1945), about 35 of the 45 medical staff quit Permanente to return to private practice.[iv] Besides Grossman, that left Wallace Neighbor, brothers Morris and Barney Malbin, Ernest Saward, Walter Noehren, Norbert Fell, Ernest Spitzer, Katherine Van Leeuwen, pediatrician Margaret Ingram, and two only identified in a recent interview by Dr. Grossman as “Knos (Bookatz?) and Haeber.”
All of us were firmly committed to the prepaid group health concept and we decided to rebuild Northern Permanente rather than allowing it to close down… With all the Kaiser shipyards on the West Coast closing, we had no patients or income. In addition, we were faced with opposition from the leaders of both Oregon and Washington medical societies to “socialized medicine” as they considered Permanente to be.
In public, they argued on a less ideological level that with the war over and the shipyards closed, the emergency that persuaded them to tolerate Northern Permanente was over. Their opposition was so fierce that Permanente doctors were barred from membership in the local medical societies and we therefore had no admitting privileges at area hospitals. [v]
In November 1945 Dr. Grossman began a year of absence from Northern Permanente to fill an internist position in the Southern California Permanente Medical Group at the Kaiser steel mill in Fontana, Calif. He rejoined the Northwest Permanente Medical Group in October 1946. Although the practice acquired the Vanport, Ore., hospital in 1947 to expand its service area, a 1948 flood wiped out both the town and the hospital. Dr. Grossman himself waded in to salvage a 50-pound EKG machine.
During the late 1940s the Permanente plans and hospitals experienced the fractious Cold War dynamics wracking the country at that time. Dr. Grossman’s political leanings were seen by management and some other physicians as negatively affecting the medical group’s relationship with the community. A series of struggles eventually resulted in his departure in 1950.[vi]
Dr. Grossman continued private medical practice in the Portland area, and his political activism continued throughout his life. In 1990 he was arrested during a peaceful demonstration organized by Physicians for Social Responsibility, challenging the presence of a battleship capable of carrying nuclear arms berthed near the Portland Rose Festival. His court testimony describes the scene: “I was standing silently with several other doctors and a few others with a sign in my hand saying ‘Rose Festival is a fun time, we don’t need nuclear weapons.’ About 2:30 p.m. three or four policemen approached and asked us to leave. I asked why and was told that we have no right to stand in a city park carrying a sign. . . I put my sign down and said ‘O.K. I am not carrying a sign.’ His response was that if I did not leave within 30 seconds I would be forcibly removed. I said we were creating no disturbance and again asked why such a confrontation was necessary. While I was writing [down his badge and name] my two arms were forcibly seized, forced behind my back and handcuffs were applied.”
Dr. Grossman was one of the brave and committed physicians who stood by the Permanente practice during its most desperate times. He will be missed. Short link to this article: http://ow.ly/nZNOf
“Some years ago I stood at the base of the Boulder Dam looking up at that seven-hundred-foot monolith, and thought of the countless thousands of men who had made it possible: the excavators, the fabricators of tools and machines, the engineers, the designers, the master mechanics — the whole gamut of skill from genius to manual labor. I remembered the manifold precisions that had to be exerted; the numberless obstacles that rose in the mines, the fields, the forests, the laboratories, the factories. Here was a monument, which from first to last was a work of the Divine Architect who we call Faith.”
—Henry J. Kaiser, September 30, 1942
By Steve Gilford, Senior Consulting Historian
Southern California physicians to replace plaque dedicated in 1992 to commemorate Sidney Garfield’s Contractors General Hospital
I’ve recently returned from Southern California where I assessed the damage vandals and thieves wreaked to the historical marker near the site of Dr. Sidney Garfield’s 1933-built Contractors General Hospital.
This location is significant because it’s where Kaiser Permanente’s pioneer physician first discovered how prepaid, preventive medicine could make health care more affordable.
The 110-pound bronze plaque, placed at the historical site 21 years ago, has been pried off its base and stolen, presumably for the value of the metal. This is another occurrence of the national trend of thieves dismantling historical markers to turn bronze to cash.
I traveled to the desert not only to evaluate the loss but also to arrange for a replacement plaque. My journey was successful: I found a safe location for a new plaque and an enthusiastic benefactor to pay the bill.
In 100-plus-degree heat that is usual for the area, I surveyed nearby Chiriaco Summit, an active way station for desert travelers, with Margit Chiriaco Rusche, the daughter of founders Joe and Ruth Chiriaco. We found an appropriate site for a new plaque in an island of green vegetation which many visitors pass.
Locating historic hospital site
For me, this mission was personal. Twenty-seven years ago, I uncovered the hospital site where, in 1933, Kaiser Permanente’s founding physician had started his prepaid health plan for workers on the Colorado River Aqueduct Project.
In 1986, Stanley Ragsdale, self-described “desert rat” and owner of Desert Center in Southern California, accompanied me on an expedition to find the long lost site of Garfield’s hospital, six miles west of the little town on Interstate 10.
As we approached the area, we could make out the foundation outlines, which were all that remained of the facility abandoned in the late 1930s. As someone with experience in archeological digs, I headed for the nearby garbage pit, in which I found medical artifacts that positively identified the site.
With this information and other research, I prepared an application and supporting materials for the site’s designation as a historical landmark. The California State Historical Commission unanimously authorized an official plaque recognizing the importance of the tiny hospital to American medicine.
In a 1986 ceremony, Sally Garfield Blackman, Dr. Garfield’s elder sister, unveiled the bronze plaque attached to a boulder near the spot where the once bustling hospital had stood.
Southern California physicians sponsor replacement plaque
Over the past two decades, the dusty town of Desert Center, with its two-block long main street, has fallen on hard times. The restaurant, gas station, general store, and ice cream stand are all gone. With no one around the abandoned town, the plaque was easy pickings for thieves, and several weeks ago they struck.
I mentioned the loss to Paul Bernstein, MD, San Diego area medical director for the Southern California Permanente Medical Group. Bernstein (Twitter: @sdthinkbig), personally interested in the history of Contractors General, is as chagrined as I am by the marker’s disappearance.
He approached the Southern California Permanente Medical Group, and they have agreed to replace the plaque as part of SCPMG’s 60th anniversary celebration in September. This year also marks the 80th anniversary of the hospital’s founding.
Chiriaco motorist stop fitting site for new historic marker
Joe and Ruth Chiriaco founded their first store the same year that Dr. Garfield opened Contractors General Hospital; they knew the hospital and Dr. Garfield well.
Ruth Chiriaco, a registered nurse, had worked in nearby Indio with Betty Runyen, Dr. Garfield’s first nurse. Having met the Chiriacos in my previous research, I was pretty sure the family would be amenable to putting the new plaque near their business that includes a store, restaurant and gas station.
This fall, Dr. Garfield’s favorite nephew and closest living relative, Dr. Robert Blackman, and Blackman’s two sons will participate in the dedication, as will nurse Betty Runyen’s three children. Betty’s daughter Susan, a nurse with Kaiser Permanente in Hawaii, has just finished a novel based on her mother’s life at Contractors General Hospital.