A Chicago native, Dr. Howard F. Nachtman came to Modesto in the summer of 1942 and was not impressed. "We arrived one of those August days when the temperature climbed to 110 degrees," he recalled in a Nov. 13, 1978, story in The Bee. "It was horrible!"
Nachtman was one of a group of doctors who were to begin work at Hammond General Hospital, an Army facility built on Blue Gum Road where the Modesto Junior College West Campus is today. In its short existence, the hospital would treat more than 24,000 soldiers. Even after its closing, it would continue to have a major impact on local medical treatment that carries on today.
With the United States' entry into World War II in December 1941, the entire country geared up for military involvement in Europe and Asia. There already were many military installations in the Central Valley; Modesto would have Hammond named after Civil War Surgeon General William A. Hammond. Construction began on the 2,500-bed facility in March 1942 and was completed before the end of August the same year. It opened in September.
Military treatment of wounded soldiers had advanced significantly over the years. Hammond's role was as a longer-term care and rehabilitation facility.
One example of the new approach was Sgt. Howard L. Patterson, 7th Infantry of the 3rd Division, who on Aug. 22, 1944, was wounded by a German machine gun once in the right shoulder and six times in the right leg.
He was first treated at a field hospital in Europe, then sent to a bigger facility in Italy. A month later, Patterson was flown back to the States and arrived at Hammond, where he underwent more operations and rehabilitation. He returned to his home in Washington state and, after a short visit, went back to Hammond to continue his rehabilitation.
While thousands of soldiers were treated at the hospital, locals also became involved with it.
A library was built and the shelves filled with books donated by Modesto residents. The local Girl Scouts contributed nearly 1,000 coat hangers. Valley sewing rooms worked on clothes, bandages and other items needed for the hospital. Furniture for a sunroom and then more for outdoor seating areas was requested and received.
Locals worked to build a large swimming pool. A theater was constructed, then Modestans contributed seats for it. Other local contributions resulted in newly arrived soldiers being able to call home to their family for free, with area residents paying the bills. Some patients were driven on overnight trips to Yosemite National Park to help with their recoveries.
Hammond was a general hospital and it gave back to the community 700 babies were born there.
With the war ending in August 1945, the base began to wind down operations. In December of that year, Hammond was declared surplus when the last patients were discharged. The property was sold to California for $1 in 1946 and eventually become a state mental hospital.
In the 1970s, it was sold again to Modesto Junior College and became the school's west campus. Today, on a portion of the campus, MJC offers classes for future nurses, hygienists and therapists.
Even with the hospital's closing, that wasn't the end of its legacy.
During his time at the hospital, Nachtman's opinion of Modesto began to change. Once the war was over, he was "determined to stay," according to the 1978 story in The Bee.
Nachtman and several of his colleagues from the hospital decided to stay to improve health care in Modesto by creating what would become Doctors Hospital. It opened in 1962 with 29 doctors who borrowed "to the hilt to raise the required money," Nachtman said in 1978.
"There we were with 50 beds and scared to death," he said. "But we needn't have been worried because it was filled in no time. And soon we added another 100 beds and they were quickly filled."
Nachtman continued working in local medicine until his death in September 1992, 50 years after his arrival in Modesto that hot August day.
Sources: Ellensburg Daily Record, Oct. 20, 1944; Lodi News-Sentinel, Feb. 8, 1943, Aug. 17, 1943, Dec. 8, 1945; The Modesto Bee: June 27, 1942, Nov. 24, 1942, Jan. 9, 1945, Aug. 14, 1946, May 22, 1964, April 26, 1976, Nov. 13, 1978, and Sept. 4, 1992.
James McAndrews Jr. is a docent and board member of the Great Valley Museum. He can be reached at email@example.com.