The Navy Converted Yosemite's Luxurious Ahwahnee Hotel to Hospital Use During World War II

Top: The Ahwahnee's Grand Lounge was transformed into Ward A and used to house convalescing sailors and marines. Bottom: Nurses relax in their quarters on floor 5. NPS photos.

Awash in red ink, the Yosemite Park & Curry Company was delighted to lease the income-starved Ahwahnee Hotel to the Navy during World War II for use as a hospital to treat injured sailors and marines. The luxurious hotel's 1943-1945 stint as United States Naval Special Hospital was certainly one of the most interesting episodes in its long and storied history.

If you'd like to read the full story, click to
History of the United States Naval Special Hospital: Yosemite National Park, California, a document that's chock-full of fascinating information and interesting historical photos. It's a large file (5.69MB pdf).

Here's the gist of it.

Big Trouble for Yosemite Park & Curry Company

The Great Depression of the 1930s put the Yosemite Park & Curry Company in a serious financial bind. Having become the Yosemite National Park concessionaire only a few years before the Depression began, the company watched with alarm as the park's visitation plummeted from nearly 500,000 in 1932 to just 296,000 in 1933 and 309,000 in 1934. Even when attendance began to climb again, the company's business remained depressed. The nation's economy was still in the doldrums, and cash-strapped people brought their penny-pinching habits with them when they visited the park.

Not surprisingly, the company was forced to trim its operations. The Wawona Hotel was temporarily closed, services at Glacier Point were severely curtailed, and belt-tightening measures of various sorts were implemented wherever practicable.

The climb back to pre-Depression visitation levels was slow and erratic at Yosemite, but the 1932 peak was finally revisited in 1940. Then, just as the Yosemite Park & Curry Company began to anticipate a full recovery, the rug was once again yanked out from under the company's operations. America's entry into World War II following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, brought fuel rationing that rendered Yosemite functionally inaccessible to all but a tiny minority of the motoring public. Annual attendance during 1942, 1943 and 1944 was even lower than the levels plumbed during the depths of the Depression.

Set against this backdrop, the happy fate of the Yosemite Park & Curry Company's luxury lodging operation, the Ahwahnee Hotel, seems all the more remarkable. The Ahwahnee suffered an especially severe loss of business during the Depression. Instead of becoming a cash cow as the company had hoped, the Ahwahnee was losing money and the company was hard-pressed to keep it open. Boasting a swimming pool, a golf course, tennis and croquet courts, and other costly amenities typical of a self-contained resort, it was quite expensive to operate.

The Navy Moves In

America's abrupt movement to a war footing in the early 1940s proved to be blessing for the Ahwahnee. Knowing that America would likely be drawn into the war then raging in Europe and Asia, the Department of the Navy surveyed the Ahwahnee and several other sites during the summer of 1941 to determine their suitability for possible emergency conversion to hospital use. The Ahwahnee made the cut, and in 1943 the Navy leased the 37-acre resort complex and moved swiftly to make it ready for use as a hospital for the treatment of mentally traumatized sailors and marines. The Navy’s thinking was that the resort's remote location, gorgeous scenery, and tranquility would make it especially well-suited for neuro-psychiatric rehabilitation.

Things moved along very swiftly after the lease was signed. Guests were still being lodged at the Ahwahnee in late May 1943 when the first hospital staff arrived and the refitting of the hotel began. The new facility -- initially named U.S. Naval Convalescent Hospital Yosemite National Park, California, eventually renamed U.S. Naval Special Hospital, and commonly called Yosemite Special Hospital -- was commissioned on June 25, 1943. The first patients arrived less than two weeks later.

Whoops!

The Navy soon realized that Yosemite was one of the worst possible places they could have chosen for rehabilitating shellshocked warriors. The isolation of the place reinforced the mental isolation of the shellshock victims, the soaring cliffs inspired claustrophobia, and the lack of entertaining diversions induced boredom and a tendency to rehash awful memories that were supposed to be erased. Even the hospital staff was plagued with morale problems.

After a few months, the hospital administrators began phasing out psychiatric treatment and converting the facility into a general physical rehabilitation unit. This new mission focus did not, however, address the basic shortcomings of the Ahwahnee as a convalescent facility. If patients were not mentally unbalanced when they got to the Ahwahnee, the isolation and crushing boredom of the place might very well tip them over the edge.

An Exceptional Officer Makes Exceptional Changes

Things began to change for the better, and very quickly, after Capt. Reynolds Hayden arrived at the hospital in September 1943 as the new medical officer in command. Captain Hayden, who was the commanding officer of the Navy Hospital at Pearl Harbor at the time of the surprise Japanese attack, was an exceptionally capable leader with a genuine desire to improve the lot of the patients and staff at Ahwahnee. With the cooperation of the National Park Service and various local and regional civic and charitable organizations, Hayden embarked on a program to create a sense of community at Ahwahnee while reorienting and dramatically expanding the hospital's recreational and rehabilitation resources.

Among the many improvements were a library, a six-lane bowling alley, a pool hall, new concrete basketball and tennis courts, a Ship's Service Store (complete with soda fountain), an extensive crafts department, a machine shop, and a woodworking shop.

Many other changes boosted the morale of patients and staff alike. During the winter there were daily excursions to the Badger Pass ski area, with free equipment and mandatory lessons from a staff trainer. The Camp Curry toboggan run was reopened and operated with Navy staff.

A Welfare Fund was established and a hospital newspaper was published. Available housing for the families of patients and staff was significantly improved, and regulations were amended to allow both patients and staff to take leaves outside the park. A staff/patient dance band was organized, and there were regular guest appearances by orchestras and USO entertainers. Hollywood movies were shown on a regular basis. Yosemite even had the only authorized beer joint in the U.S. Navy's worldwide inventory of naval hospitals.

Legacies

The Yosemite Special Hospital was decommissioned in December 1945, though many of the rehabilitation concepts and methods developed there under Captain Hayden's direction are still in evidence in today's military hospitals. Converted back to civilian use, the Ahwahnee Hotel remains one of the National Park System's premier luxury hotels. The Yosemite Park & Curry Company is long gone, having been bought out in 1993 after nearly seven decades of operation.

Postscript
: The classic movie The Caine Munity (1954) has several scenes shot on location at the Ahwahnee Hotel. The sequence is centered on a wounded sailor convalescing at the Yosemite Special Hospital. One scene shows Yosemite Falls in the background and another shows the (Glacier Point) Firefall that was immensely popular with Yosemite visitors from the 1870s until it was discontinued in 1968. Park historians believe that the Firefall scene from The Caine Mutiny may be the best film footage of the Firefall ever made.