CHARLESTOWN – Before students were attending classes at Valley Forge Christian College, the grounds were used as an army hospital.
The Valley Forge General Hospital, known to the community as “The Army Hospital,” was built to treat members of the military during World War II, but also treated military and their family members during the Vietnam and Korean wars. Many say it was its own city because of having its own swimming pool, golf course, post theatre and greenhouse. It was the second biggest U.S. Army hospital to Walter Reed east of the Mississippi River.
In order to remember the importance and contributions of the hospital, a roadside historical marker along Charlestown Road across from Bob’s Deli Haven was dedicated on Oct. 27. Along with the dedication, the day featured vintage military vehicles, military re-enactors, walking tours, screenings of “Bright Victory” (filmed at the hospital in 1951) and “You’d Have to be Blind not to See It,” a documentary made by Dr. Dan Mortensen.
Obtaining a roadside historical marker was a process. VFCC president Dr. Don Meyer said planning for the marker began two years ago.
Bringing the marker to Phoenixville was made possible after the Historical Society of the Phoenixville Area members Susan Marshall, Ryan Conroy, and Paul Kusko teamed up with VFCC staff members, Julia Patton, Michelle Maloney and Malcolm Brubaker.
Meyer expressed his excitement for the recognition of the army hospital.
“We are blessed to be able to honor the heroes of the past who came through these sacred grounds,” he said. “Many of them made huge sacrifices for our freedom and we must never forget the season of healing they had here. This marker memorializes those heroes and our college is grateful to be a part of that celebration.”
Meyer said the hospital’s site was vacant for several years before the college moved in. Remnants of the hospital were visible when he took over as president in 1996-97 school year.
“There was equipment in some of old buildings…dentist chairs and lab sinks in some of the spaces,” he said.
The desk Meyer uses today was also from the army hospital’s era. He said it was the commandant’s desk and the chair he uses was also the commandant’s. On the side of his desk is a worn sticker that reads, “Property of the U.S. Army” with an inventory number on it.
Furniture from the hospital’s days is also still used in some buildings on campus, Meyer said.
He said there is a “long-term desire” to have a museum on campus that would provide details and show artifacts from the hospital and also tell the story about the college’s history.
Marshall said years ago, Mortensen, financial director at VFCC, was interested in having a historical marker placed at the college. The idea was brought up again after she received an email from a Vietnam veteran that was visiting the former grounds of the hospital. The veteran wrote in the email that there wasn’t a monument or sign that the hospital had been there. She brought the email to the attention of the historical society’s board. In order to obtain a historical marker, the college had to agree with the idea. Mortgensen helped put the historical society in contact with the college.
Marshall said the application process for the marker to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission was similar to grant writing. The project was sponsored by the historical society and VFCC. The donors who helped make the manufacturing of the marker and dedication possible included VFW Ettinger-Powers-Campbell Post 1564, Phoenixville; Phoenixville Community Health Foundation; Phoenixville Hospital and an anonymous donor.
According to a press release from the historical society, many doctors made innovative medical developments during or after their experiences working at the hospital. Dr. James Barret Brown and Dr. Bradford Cannon refined skin grafting with burn victims. In 1990, Dr. Joseph E. Murray, who also worked in plastic surgery at the hospital, was awarded the Nobel Prize in medicine “for his continuing contributions to organ transplantation.”
The historical society is collecting oral histories from veterans and other people who were connected with the hospital. Anyone wanting to share their story is encouraged to call the historical society, 610-935-7646. War veterans’ stories will be submitted to the Library of Congress Veterans History Project, and stored at the historical society.
During the unveiling of the marker, the planning committee asked people that were connected to the hospital to participate.
“As we were working on this we would hear stories about this person and that person,” Kusko said. “There’s a story about each person that was connected in some way. Our idea was to have some honorary or symbolic “revealers” in that way we could show the breadth of how people were involved with hospital.”
Those who participated included Jean and Bob Wislowski, Bob Gautreau, Harry Heater, Diane DiFerdinando, Tina Stonorov Daly, David J. Wenzel, Cheryl Haze and Dr. James M. Hunter.
The Wislowskis met at the hospital when Jean was working as a nurse and Bob was a patient in her ward. Jean refused to date patients so Bob approached her after he was released.
Gautreau, a World War II veteran, stepped on a landmine during the Battle of the Bulge, resulting in injuries to his left leg, left hand, and affected hearing out of his left ear. He also met his wife at the hospital.
Heater served in World War II, the Korean War and Vietnam War. His job at the hospital was a combat medic. He served as a ward master for Wards 3-A, B & C and later Wards 5-A & B which housed the higher ranking officers.
DiFerdinando’s father was a barber at the hospital and she volunteered there as a teenager.
“What I thought was interesting, at a young teenage age, she was encouraged by her father to visit amputees,” Kusko said. “These were traumatic times for these guys. A lot of young people would have been squeamish about it or turned off about it. She embraced it in some shape or form. Later in life, she never forgot these guys.”
After DiFerdinando retires, she plans to publish a tribute book about the amputees she met at the hospital, Kusko said.
Daly is the granddaughter of Frank B. Foster who owned the land before it was used for the hospital. Foster offered to donate 180 acres for the hospital, but the federal government ended up purchasing the land for $25,200.
Wenzel suffered injuries while serving as a first lieutenant in Vietnam, resulting in the loss of both legs, left hand and the use of one eye. Although he’s a triple amputee, he didn’t let that stop him from achieving goals in his life.
Kusko said, “He went on from here to have a productive life. He’s married. He was the mayor of Scranton. He took a positive approach to overcome injuries that he had.”
Haze was born at the hospital in 1953. During the time of her birth, her mother was living in Philadelphia while her father was stationed in Alaska (Kodiak Island) as a supply officer for the U.S. Army.
Hunter was a hand surgeon at Jefferson College, but worked as a consultant for the hospital and was known for being a pioneer surgeon for developing and working with artificial tendons.