Paralyzed World War II Veterans Became Wheelchair Athletes Who Changed the World

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It’s not uncommon today to see people in wheelchairs living happy, fulfilling lives, albeit with numerous challenges. But that was not the case 100 years ago, after World War I, when many soldiers incurred injuries that left them paraplegics. In fact, becoming paralyzed at the time was largely considered to be a death sentence.

That began to change in the World War II era because of compassionate and innovative doctors who created medical advances that gave injured veterans a second chance at life – and whose legacies surround us today.

Author David Davis tells this story in his Christopher award-winning book, “Wheels of Courage: How Paralyzed Veterans from World War II Invented Wheelchair Sports, Fought for Disability Rights, and Inspired a Nation.” We discussed it recently on “Christopher Closeup” (podcasts below).

Davis explains, “Before the 1930s, people who were paralyzed, especially in World War I, were considered dead-enders, no-hopers, by the medical community. For the most part, it wasn’t necessarily the injury per se that was the problem, but it was the after-effects: infection, sepsis…There was no penicillin. So if you were in a wheelchair at the time, or if you were paralyzed, the life expectancy was about 18 months. Those lucky few who did survive were shunted off to institutions…or were with family, if family could support them. And their wheelchairs were incredibly bulky. It was like a La-Z-Boy on wheels, so they had no mobility. There was no access. And overarching, [there was] a stigma against disability that was pervasive – and still to this day, I think, to a certain degree.”

The bias against disabled people that Davis covers in the book is shocking, especially by modern standards. For instance, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, some major American cities passed “ugly laws,” which prohibited “diseased, maimed, or deformed people from appearing on public streets.”

By World War II, not only had medical advances been made, such as the creation of penicillin to fight infection, but treatments for soldiers on the battlefield had also improved, with medics and field hospitals being placed nearby. Therefore, soldiers who would have died from their injuries during World War I wound up surviving the second World War.

Davis chooses to tell their story through three representative individuals: 1) Johnny Winterholler, a college athlete from the University of Wyoming, who fought with the Marines in the Philippines and spent much of the war in a hellish POW camp, where his body broke down, leaving him paralyzed. 2) Gene Fesenmeyer, a farm boy from Iowa, who also joined the Marines and was shot by a sniper during the Battle of Okinawa; and 3) Stan Den Adel, who joined the Army and fought in the European theater, where he was shot in the back a few days before the war ended..

All three men ended up in VA hospitals in the U.S., where they – and others in the same situation – were left asking questions, such as “Can I have kids? Can I get married? Can I hold down a job?” Doctors and physical therapists realized these men were likely to live normal lifespans and needed to be prepared for the future.

Davis said, “What [the doctors] did was…holistic care of the mind and the body. So there were physical exercises to strengthen, particularly, the upper body, arms, shoulders, neck, core muscles, which are so important for those who are paraplegics because you have to move around, muscle yourself into wheelchairs, things like that. Frankly, it was very much a psychological aspect [too] in the sense of, here are these young men in their 20s, most of them, who sacrificed their lives, their bodies, for this country…and all of a sudden they’ve lost the use of their legs. That was…a huge psychological blow.”

In addition, continued Davis, “there was recreation and sports. And I think this was a crucial element for many of the men. Let’s say they had played basketball or sports in high school, maybe college or even in the service. This is part of energizing someone to go, ‘You know what? I’m not going to sit in the bed for the rest of my life. I’m going to get up and make something of my life.'”

Thankfully, wheelchairs that were lighter and easier to maneuver than the old-fashioned ones were created, giving these paralyzed veterans greater mobility. And Davis points out an important point about use of the phrase “confined” to a wheelchair.

He said, “Early on, people would tell me, that is a misnomer. The wheelchair is liberating, it’s freedom. These veterans [could say], ‘I can wheel myself to a car. I can wheel myself to a basketball court and play basketball.’ How amazing is that? So for them, it was something to embrace.”

At first, the veterans played wheelchair basketball among themselves. It gave them a greater level of confidence as to what they could accomplish. Eventually, they also played in public exhibitions, giving the average citizen the chance to see they could be tough, rather than helpless or worthy of pity.

There were also companies that stepped up to help the vets make a living, companies such as Bulova, which gave veterans vocational training on how to make and repair watches.

As time passed, wheelchair athletics became more widespread, leading to the creation of the Paralympic Games. One of the people who helped elevate the games in the public’s consciousness was Pope John XXIII.

Davis said, “The Olympics were in Rome in 1960. Then following the Olympics, led by the British neurosurgeon, Dr. Ludwig Guttmann, they organized a Paralympics. At that time, this was very small. It was not what we know today as a Paralympics, which is intricately and intimately connected with the Olympics…Most historians say the first official Paralympics was Rome, 1960…[The Pope] had an audience with Dr. Ludwig Guttmann who, interestingly enough, was a German-Jew who had escaped the Nazis. But he had an audience with the Pope, and then the Pope had an audience with the athletes, at least from afar. Where the impact really comes into play is because of the Pope’s importance and presence, that became a major story in newspapers around the world. And again, we talk about the stigma of those with disability, here you have the Pope taking time to have an audience, and that goes all around the world and resonates around the world, and that was a major moment for the Paralympics. Dr. Guttmann wrote about this…as, “This is a major stepping stone for the Paralympics.” Because his vision was that the Paralympics would be equal to the Olympics someday. And he proved himself pretty right. “

On the spiritual front, the reaction to being paralyzed varied greatly. For some soldiers, the violence of war led them away from God. For others, it moved them deeper into their faith.

Davis observed, “In speaking with Gene Fesenmeyer and even others who had gone through the Korean War and the Vietnam War, there was to some, a loss of faith, there was to some this feeling of, ‘Why me?’ Then there were others who went through the rehabilitation and did find a higher calling. I know of at least two wheelchair basketball players who embraced faith: one studied theology out here in Southern California. Wally Frost is an example of someone who became quite spiritual and used wheelchair basketball as a way to help himself. Then he used his faith and the cloth to inspire others, and that was a major part of his life. I think [his faith] really deepened his understanding of ‘how do we make a life here? How do we make a meaningful life?’ He was able to embrace that and to inspire so many others.”

In the end, “Wheels of Courage” is about a lot of links in a chain, people who met a challenge and took the initiative to make things better. And today, it should be noted that curb cutouts, ramps, kneeling buses, handicap parking, and other elements of modern life that accommodate people with disabilities are legacies of the movement begun by the World War II veterans and doctors that Davis writes about. It should also be noted that Johnny Winterholler, Gene Fesenmeyer, and Stan Den Adel all went on to live fulfilling lives to a ripe old age.

Davis concludes, “To me, ‘Wheels of Courage’ is about the spirit of the World War II veterans who survived this and go on to create something that has become a worldwide phenomenon. That, to me, is totally inspiring. It’s interesting. The title of the book…I’ve had some pushback on that from people in the disability community. The take is that – and I totally understand this – they don’t want to be known as, ‘Oh, we’re courageous or we did this.’ They appreciate that, but they want it to be beyond that…Still, by writing about the original cohort of men and women who did this, to me, that’s what the courage is about. I’m not trying to make it, ‘Oh, what a beautiful day, there’s no ugliness.’ No, disability and the rehabilitation [process] was very difficult, especially in those early days, a lot of pain. I try to bring some of that struggle to show that. But to me, it is inspiring that these men and the medical community – it was a collaboration. And I think that’s an important element of anything that we can do to collaborate and make this world better for a lot of us. That, to me, is the inspiring part about it.”

(To listen to my full interview with David Davis, click on the podcast link):

David Davis interview – Christopher Closeup