During World War II, venereal diseases were called “the enemy in your pants,” and soldiers were warned that “your carelessness is their secret weapon.” But ordinary workers on the home front also confronted these communicable diseases, and the Permanente Health Plan stepped up to reduce that harm.
April is designated STD (Sexually Transmitted Disease) Awareness Month by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most of the research on pre-AIDS World War II focuses on venereal diseases in the military, but home front workers suffered as well.
Some of this threat appears to have been exaggerated at the time. An article in the Portland, Ore., area Kaiser shipyard newspaper The Bos’n’s Whistle dated April 14, 1944, about venereal disease on the home front reported an alarming – but false – statistic:
Health experts report syphilis and gonorrhea near top of list of most common communicable diseases; the toll since the war began is greater than total battle casualties.
Reviewing the actual numbers, this claim was both inaccurate and alarmist. U.S. military deaths for that war was 416,800. Home front data found in Vital statistics of the United States, published by the U.S. Bureau of the Census under “General Tables – Deaths from Selected Causes” gives us a total death toll for syphilis (the only STD singled out, which is unfortunate, since gonorrhea was also prevalent; a 1944 Kaiser shipyard article on illnesses in Washington state lists 1,666 cases of syphilis and 1,929 cases of gonorrhea) between 1942 and 1945 as 58,698. Still, that was a lot of people to see dying from a preventable disease.
“VD vs. Victory” in the Richmond, Calif., Kaiser shipyard paper Fore’n’Aft in early 1944 warned of the danger:
Four in every 100 industrial employees have syphilis… venereal disease is one of the greatest enemies of industry. The [California] State Federation of Labor considers it so important that the executive board has recommended a compulsory blood test for all union members.
A quack cannot cure you. You cannot safely treat yourself. The only way you can be sure you do not have syphilis is by a blood test. You should have a test once a year. If you find that you have caught the disease, it will still be in the early stages and a doctor can treat and cure you.
In the early years of the war the standard treatment for syphilis and gonorrhea were sulfa (sulfonamide) drugs, the first and only effective antibiotics available. The best cure – penicillin – wasn’t proven until 1943, when doctors at a U.S. Marine Hospital on Staten Island in New York successfully used it to treat four patients. And even then, this “wonder drug” was rationed for military use. It first was made available to home front workers in May 1944 to treat pneumonia, due to the efforts of Kaiser shipyard physician Dr. Morris Collen.
In language foreshadowing the challenge of treating the AIDS epidemic in the 1980s, the Bos’n’s Whistle article concluded that the biggest obstacle in attacking the problem of venereal disease was the stigma attached to it.
The important thing to remember is that to have a venereal disease does not constitute a crime, but to transmit it to others is definitely criminal. Authorities emphasize that most of the individual problems of persons having a venereal disease can be handled without resorting to law enforcement.
VD didn’t just affect men- the new shipyards were full of women as well. Hannah Peters, MD, was the Kaiser Richmond shipyard gynecologist and she co-authored “Gynecology in Industry” in the Kaiser Foundation Medical Bulletin, July, 1945. There she outlined what she’d learned during her first two years serving a workforce composed of as many as 23,000 female employees.
Her section on VD education explains the scope of the problem and efforts to reach out to women. She noted that during the period between March 1, 1944, and February 28, 1945, 2832 new cases were seen in the Gynecology Department of the Permanente Field Hospital in Richmond alone. Among these, there were 390 cases of gonorrhea. This meant that 13 per cent of all new gynecological cases proved to be infected with gonorrhea. The article goes on to report that the high percentage of infected women led physicians to introduce an educational outreach program in the shipyards:
Venereal disease educational material was placed in all women’s rest rooms in the yards. Literature, folders as well as booklets, supplied by the Public Health Department, were made easily available in wooden racks which were hung in conspicuous places in every women’s rest room. We were encouraged to find how quickly the literature disappeared. We know that the pamphlets were not only taken out of the rack, but they were actually read. We cannot measure their educational value; however, innumerable women have come into the clinic asking to be examined for a venereal disease because they think they might have some of the symptoms described in the literature which they found in the rest rooms.
The struggle for quality, affordable health care was vital to the war effort, which included the crop of STDs that debilitated the home front workforce. And just as the Permanente health plan rolled up its sleeves and took on that battle during World War II, it continues to do so today.
Last year, Kaiser Permanente led the nation in 21 quality measures, including screening for chlamydia. On top of our preventive testing practices, our doctors encourage a healthy conversation about STDs. A recent Total Health Radio podcast “So . . . This is Awkward” by a guest expert from Sexual Health Innovations offers helpful advice on how to talk about STDs to friends and loved ones.
Special thanks to Michael Sholinbeck, Outreach & Instruction Librarian at the Sheldon Margen Public Health Library, University of California Berkeley, for guidance on U.S. Census data.
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A sprawling, single-story structure with a small tower sits at 1330 Cutting Boulevard in Richmond, Calif. Forlorn and all but forgotten, few know that it played a proud role during the World War II home front and in the subsequent history of the region. It was a humble, working-class hospital that opened August 10, 1942, and served thousands of patients until it closed in September 1995, when the new Kaiser Permanente Richmond Medical Center opened several blocks away.
When the United States was drawn into World War II in December 1941, Henry J. Kaiser was already running two shipyards in Richmond building cargo ships for Great Britain. Not only would the existing workforce composed primarily of healthy white men soon go off to war, the tidal wave of replacement workers were new to the shipbuilding trade, were performing under high-pressure conditions, and were often in poor health to begin with. Some 90,000 workers and their families migrated to the Richmond shipyards during the war, swamping all existing medical facilities. Enter the Field Hospital.
There were six first aid stations in Kaiser’s Richmond shipyards for immediate care, and the newly refurbished, 70-bed flagship Permanente Hospital in Oakland was the health plan’s biggest facility. But in between, just blocks away from the yards, was the Permanente Richmond Field Hospital.
At first it only had 10 beds, but the demand for services was so high that before the year’s end a 75-bed expansion was underway. Sidney Garfield, MD, who was in charge of the medical program, later reflected on the nearly constant expansion during the war: “Most of our mistakes . . . came from underestimation.”
“They would be 20 deep in the hallways every day,” remembers Mrs. Bernice Brooks, who went to work at Richmond in January 1943.
Mrs. Brooks was one of seven 25-year veteran Kaiser Permanente workers interviewed in a 1967 article celebrating the 25th anniversary of the hospital.
“We had five station wagons and three ambulances,” explains Ruth Schornick, a senior medical receptionist who spent 20 years in Emergency, starting in June, 1943. “Invariably, we couldn’t find a driver. I had a chauffeur’s license, so I would have to go down to the shipyards to pick up the injured. And we also had to use the station wagons to bring the nurses and other employees to work and to take them home.”
“It became routine for the ambulance driver to stop by and pick up the X-ray technician or anesthesiologist whenever he picked up a patient at night that might require one of us,” adds Olive Boyd, supervisor of Radiology.
The hospital was a significant asset to the Richmond community. An exhaustive survey of the Field Hospital produced in 2000 by the National Park Service includes this description:
The addition begun in the spring of 1943 allowed for families of the shipyard workers to be taken care of in the Field Hospital by their own physicians [on a fee-for-service basis, since they were not yet included in the Permanente Health Plan]. This provided a great service to the city, as its population was quickly outgrowing existing medical facilities. Up to this point, the hospital had been serving workers’ families only in cases of emergencies. The new facilities included “complete gynecology, obstetric, surgery, medical, orthopedic and all allied clinics,” which operated on a twenty-four-hour basis. Additionally, as an experimental program, families living in the Harbor Gate and other residential developments were invited to visit the hospital for emergency treatment and office appointments on a fee-per-service basis.
Recall that in 1942 many institutions, including all branches of the military, the United Service Organizations, and hospitals, were segregated. Not the Permanente facilities. “Illness knows no color line here,” wrote a reporter from the San Francisco Bulletin in 1943 about the racial diversity of patients in line for treatment and in neighboring hospital beds: “Red-helmeted men, women welders, Negroes, lined up for a checkup by the busy young doctors.”
An article titled “Berkeleyan Victim as Zoot-Suit Riots Spread” in the June 10, 1943, edition of the Berkeley Daily Gazette noted some of the racial tensions at the time, and the role of this stalwart care facility:
A young Berkeley Negro, Carl Oliver, said one of three unidentified sailors objected to his zoot suit garb and struck him on the forehead. Fearing serious trouble, he fled from the Richmond restaurant. At Richmond Field Hospital, Oliver was given emergency treatment and released. The victim is employed at Richmond Yard No. 1 as a burner, police said, and had stopped at the cafe on his way from work.
The commitment to inclusive care continued after the war’s end when the Richmond Field Hospital was again certified as a general treatment facility, accepting all inpatients regardless of race. Black physicians returning from military service needed hospital privileges, and could get them at Kaiser because it had the beds.
In October 1945, Health Plan membership reached its lowest point – 14,500. Richmond hospital resources and staff were diverted to the Oakland hospital, which served most of these members. For a period of several months the hospital was run on an outpatient basis only with a skeleton staff of not more than 20-25 employees. Later, a laboratory for comparative biology research was set up under the supervision of Ellsworth Dougherty, MD, in February 1959, with a staff of 30 people.
The hospital got a new lease on life in 1966, when it became the site of the Kaiser Foundation Psychiatric Center. One section was remodeled and refurbished to accommodate a 12-bed intensive care unit offering individual, group and occupational therapy. The center provided both inpatient care and day-care.
Eventually the hospital’s condition degraded, and in December 1973 the Kaiser Company purchased five acres in downtown Richmond to build a new hospital, a doctors’ office building and a parking structure.
The new medical offices opened in 1979, with many departments moving there from the Field Hospital. Remaining at the old facility, now referred to as the “Richmond Medical Center,” were an emergency department, inpatient services, physical therapy, a pharmacy, a laboratory, radiology department, and night and weekend clinics. In September 1995, with the completion of the last segment of a new $56 million four-building Kaiser Permanente medical complex in downtown Richmond, the Field Hospital was finally closed, and its remaining services were moved into the new structure.
The site was purchased in 1999 by the Islamic Community of Northern California, which planned to renovate it into a community center and mosque, complete with Islamic architectural features. However, that conversion never happened and the site remains mostly vacant.
A nomination for the Field Hospital to the National Preservation Registry was drafted in 2004, and although it is not listed by itself, the facility is registered as an element in of the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historic Park. The Historic American Buildings Survey concluded with a powerful appraisal of the importance of the Richmond Field Hospital:
As one of the remaining World War II-era structures in Richmond, it represents an important historical moment, when thousands of workers converged on the small city to produce the hundreds of Liberty ships that helped to lead the Allied forces to victory. The Field Hospital is an outstanding contribution to the important narrative of the World War II American home front, demonstrating the great efforts made to provide social services to the thousands of men and women who labored in the defense industries during the war.
Ordinary people, doing extraordinary things.
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What has 24 cylinders and goes 180 miles an hour?
One of Henry J. Kaiser’s hydroplanes, of course.
The industrialist founder of Kaiser Permanente and his son Edgar loved racing boats at Lake Tahoe, and in 1955 hired famed water speed artist Bartlett “Bart” Carter (a Kaiser employee) to build something extra special. At the boat’s heart was a veritable beast of a powerplant – a 24-cylinder Allison V-3420 capable of putting out a staggering 2,885 horsepower. For comparison, muscle cars of the 1970s pumped out between 400-500 horsepower; the triple-expansion steam engines that powered Kaiser’s World War II Liberty ships put out 2,500 horsepower. Kaiser’s new water rocket was named the Scooter Too.
After World War II, many kinds of military airplane engines were readily available at a bargain, but this was special. It was an experimental design built by General Motors, a Frankensteinian jam-up of a two Allison V-1710 12-cylinder engines with a common crankcase. The 12-cylinder, water-cooled engine had been used in American fighter aircraft such as the Curtis P-40 Warhawk, the Lockheed P-38 Lightning, and the initial versions of the North American P-51 Mustang.
Only 150 of the V-3420s were built, as aircraft power became more effectively produced by jet engines. Kaiser dropped one of them into the 28-foot-long U-10 Scooter Too (the “U” stands for “unlimited,” a racing class with fewer restrictions than standard hydroplane racing).
This boat began as Henry J. Kaiser’s Scooter, powered by two powerful Cadillac engines and described as a “real plush boat.” But when Scooter was smoked by a “little kid with a B-class hydro” Henry resolved to amp it up. He added a larger engine, but the boat couldn’t handle it. Famed driver Jack Regas (also a Kaiser employee, who’d worked for Kaiser Rock, Sand and Gravel) said this about her first race:
“After I won the 1954 Mile High Gold Cup, I brought the boat in and she sank. The Allison shook the seams all apart… So Mr. (Henry) Kaiser Sr. said, ’Don’t worry about that, boys. We’re going to build a new boat.’ So we built the Scooter Too. We built it in the shop at Livermore, California.”
One challenge was linking the V-3420 powerplant to the single 13-inch propeller. The two engine output shafts aimed forward, fed a custom gearbox that tripled the rotation speed, whereupon the single drive shaft ran back under the engine and cockpit. The torque was enormous. After several shafts broke, Kaiser ordered one made out of titanium. And those 24 cylinders were very thirsty – on one of her first races she ran out of gas just shy of the finish line. They promptly added two lateral auxiliary tanks.
Alas, this beast never performed as hoped. She threw propellers, sank six times, was derisively nicknamed “the submarine,” and never won a race.
Regas described her qualities in an interview with Thunderboat magazine:
“The Scooter Too had too much weight. The boat weighed close to 8000 lbs. I had that big engine and all the extra fuel I had to carry and gas is 8 pounds a gallon. It was just a heavy boat…The problem with the Scooter Too was that I was throwing props all the time — just too much power on and off the throttle too fast… But the Scooter Too was a good riding boat.”
The Kaisers sold her in 1957 to Stanley Adams and John Owsley for $4,500 and she was trailered to Pasco, Wash. The sale include numerous spare parts, including 72 pistons, 18 connecting rods, and an incomplete second engine.
She was raced as the U-10 but renamed Adios, and later still under a third owner as the U-26 Miss Moses Lake and the Miss Tri-Cities. She ended up with her engine gutted and ignominiously mounted on a pole at Columbia Park in Kennewick, Wash.
But rotting as a seagull perch was not to be her final fate.
This boat is being lovingly restored by Gary Larkins in Auburn, Calif. Gary’s not really a boat guy – he’s a renowned airplane salvage expert who’s traveled all over the world rescuing vintage planes from swamps and glaciers. But the Scooter Too has an aviation heritage beyond just the engine, and Gary embraced this project with all his passion. Aircraft components abound – Gary was amused to discover that the external oil tank was pulled from a P-51 Mustang.
What’s more, Gary appreciated Henry J. Kaiser’s spirit of innovation. He commented on a recent blog post about Kaiser’s foray into postwar civil aviation: “It doesn’t surprise me though, that he would tackle the aviation industry, he was fearless and always pushed the very limits of everything he did. Thus we have the Scooter Too which was as large a piston engine as anyone has ever put in a race boat.”
Gary was drawn into the project by his neighbor Richard Carter, son of the original builder and young pit crew member of the Scooter Too. Gary bought the gutless hulk, found another Allison V-3420 engine, and is in the final stages of restoring her to her midcentury glory. Gary wryly comments, “The original goal was to just preserve it but that has grown to restoring it, if I live long enough. LOL.”
She’s been displayed at Lake Tahoe’s South Shore Boat Show, and is seeking a museum for permanent display.
Henry J. Kaiser and his son Edgar would have been proud of Gary’s efforts.
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