Backroads

Pvt. Joseph Wanner of North Dakota put aside his crutches to dance with Lenora Durbin of Temple during a social at McCloskey Army General Hospital during World War II. McCloskey, one of the Army’s best known surgical and rehabilitation centers during World War II, is now the Central Texas Veterans Center.

Memorial Day always brings up one unanswerable question: “How do you say thank you?”

Denise Woolley Karimkhani found a way to honor and give thanks. A retired librarian at the University of Mary Hardin-Baylor, Karimkhani of Temple spent more than five years researching and writing a history of McCloskey Army General Hospital, where her parents worked and met.

Coincidently, her 282-page, softcover book, “For us, the Living,” has just been released, just before Memorial Day and is available through Amazon.

The finished tome has been Karimkhani’s labor of love and a way to say thanks for her parents and for the thousands who served. It also includes dozens of photos.

Activated in June 1942 at the beginning of World War II, McCloskey grew into one of the army’s largest general hospitals, noted as an outstanding center for orthopedic cases, amputations and neurosurgery.

In May 1946, the hospital was taken over by the Veterans Administration and became a general medical and surgical center. In 1979, the McCloskey Veterans Administration Center was renamed in honor of U.S. Rep. Olin E. Teague, veterans’ affairs chairman for 18 years and himself a patient at McCloskey.

Fittingly, Karimkhani took the book title from President Abraham Lincoln’s 1863 Gettysburg address: “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.”

Her father, Aubrey Lee Woolley (1923-2011), enlisted in the Marines in 1942, where he served in the New Hebrides Islands. After the war he began working at McCloskey as an orthopedics nursing assistant as well as other jobs. He met Helen Ruth Luco (1927-2019), a registered nurse with the U.S. Cadet Nurse Corps. They married in 1950. Gaining additional training at Temple College, she eventually became orthopedics head nurse. Helen retired in 1982 after working at the Veterans Hospital for 37 years.

Karimkhani’s book expands the 1993 work by Dr. Victor E. Schulze Jr. (1929-2016), former VA physician.

“I started the research while I was still working,” she said. “I’d spend my off days and free time in the library off and on for four to five years — whenever I had the time. I stored it all away in hopes I would be able to do something with it.” She also scrolled through miles of newspaper microfilm as well as read books and primary sources — as evidenced by her extensive footnotes and bibliography.

To shore up her interview skills, she took a course in oral history at Baylor University. Karimkhani interviewed her mother, who by then was in her 80s, about her nurse training, but it was her father’s stories about the German prisoners of war that intrigued her and pushed her to learn more.

By December 2018, she began writing.

The work became more than just a chronicle of her parents, but rather the story of how soldiers — many near death and horribly maimed — found new lives. As she tells it, the McCloskey story is really a hopeful tale of soldiers learning to adjust to their “new normal.”

She begins with the creation of the hospital itself and the persons who helped push the idea to the federal officials — notably a coalition from the Temple Chamber of Commerce led by Frank Willis Mayborn (1903-1987), editor and publisher of the Temple Daily Telegram.

The Army activated McCloskey General Hospital in an open field along South First Street in Temple. The hospital was named for Maj. James A. McCloskey, killed on Bataan in March 1942, the first regular Army doctor to die in World War II. Selected to head the hospital was Brig. Gen. James Albertus Bethea (1887-1984), M.D., a career Army physician who was approaching retirement when Pearl Harbor changed his plans.

“It is certainly not right to say that you enjoyed your war service. There is nothing about war that is enjoyable. However, at McCloskey, I had a sense of satisfaction in knowing that I was doing more for suffering humanity than I had ever done before,” Bethea recalled.

When Bethea arrived, he was a one-man staff, heading a hospital still under construction. “I didn’t even have a postage stamp, much less an office or typewriters, or a nickel to spend,” he recalled. Eventually, with his leadership, McCloskey soon grew to become one of the Army’s largest general hospitals.

McCloskey patients were gratified especially by the generosity of civilians throughout the nation, particularly Temple residents, who donated time and millions of dollars in money, equipment and services to help the soldiers’ recovery. The gifts were the nation’s way of saying thanks to those who had sacrificed so much.

Karimkhani also tells the little-known story of Maggie McCloskey, part pointer and part “plain dog,” who became the soldiers’ best friend and confidant. She also describes the political wrangling in the late 1940s, when government officials pondered turning the hospital into a tuberculosis sanitarium.

What surprised her the most?

“The size of the hospital itself and the number of people who came through, the number of patients,” she said, “and all of the famous people who came to Temple to visit soldiers. Gifts poured in from everywhere.”

Even the gift of a lake. She includes the story of Fort Worth schoolchildren who raised $10,000 to buy an adjoining tract to create a lake and park — named Tarrant Park in honor of their home county. Today, the lake is still stocked and used by VA residents.

“I grew up in Temple, but I never paid lot of attention to what going around as a child. It meant a lot to me to go back and delve into Temple’s history, to see how far it had come in just a few years,” Karimkhani said.

For that, the community is thankful.

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