Patients and nurses relax in the sun, July 1945.

New Book Celebrates 75 Years of Desert Healthcare District

This excerpt takes us back to 1942, when a Palm Springs hotel favored among the rich and famous found new purpose as a military hospital.

Jeffrey Crider Health & Wellness, History

Patients and nurses relax in the sun, July 1945.

Patients and nurses relax in the sun, July 1945.

In honor of its 75th anniversary, the Desert Healthcare District & Foundation released a commemorative book by author Jeff Crider documenting the past, present, and future of health in the Coachella Valley. Split into two parts, the book — Desert Healthcare District & Foundation: One Agency’s Path to Making a Difference — begins with the area’s first settlers and extends through present-day issues in health and wellness.

“Part II is focused more on the nitty gritty of life here in the Coachella Valley and the fact that, while this area is famous as a retreat for the rich and famous, most people who live here struggle to make ends meet,” Crider shares. “Desert Healthcare District is the only public agency in the Coachella Valley that is dedicated exclusively to identifying local healthcare deficiencies within its service area and to providing grant funding to nonprofit health and wellness organizations that are best equipped to address these needs. To properly describe what the district does, the book explains the full spectrum of health and wellness problems affecting Coachella Valley residents.”

Here, we present an excerpt from Part I, Chapter 4: “The Military Takes Over,” which reflects on when the glitzy El Mirador Hotel, opened in 1928, was refashioned into a hospital, seeding the property’s use as it continues today. The site would eventually become Desert Hospital (now Desert Regional Medical Center) and the headquarters of the Desert Healthcare District. To get a copy of the book, visit the official website or email: [email protected]. — Emily Chavous Foster

The Military Takes Over

By Jeff Crider

By the time the  U.S. entered World War II, Palm Springs was internationally known as a playground for Hollywood stars, many of whom vacationed at El Mirador Hotel.

The iconic Spanish revival–style hotel with its 108-foot tower also attracted the attention of the U.S. government, which took over the 200-room hotel in April 1942 and converted it into a 1,500-bed hospital for the duration of the war.

“The best is none too good for the American soldier,” a U.S. Army officer told the Los Angeles Times in an April 13, 1942, report.

The U.S. Army renamed El Mirador Hotel, calling it Torney General Hospital in honor of Maj. Gen. George H. Torney, a graduate of West Point and longtime military surgeon who served as Surgeon General of the U.S. Army from 1909 until his death in 1913.

Armando’s Bar

Soldiers raise the flag at Torney General Hospital.

The Los Angeles Times documented the transformation of the luxurious hotel into a military hospital in a Nov. 21, 1943, report. […]

“The lobby has long since been stripped of its bridge and bingo tables and deep armchairs. In their place are rows of steel desks, where men in uniform are working. The fashionable shop at one end of the building is now the personnel office, and instead of racks of clothes, there are dozens of steel files. […]

“But the grounds remain unchanged. Lawns are being sprinkled and cut. The border beds are freshly planted with flower cuttings and give promise of color in another month. The pool is open all day for the use of patients. Men in maroon bathrobes and pajamas sit in deck chairs chatting with visitors.”

Torney General Hospital was considered “one of the most luxurious hospitals in military service anywhere in the country during the conflict,” according to a Dec. 23, 1949, Desert Sun report. […]

Barbara Eves, a historian and archivist for Desert Regional Medical Center, was born at Torney General Hospital in 1944 while her father, Fred Ayala, served at the U.S. Army base in Palm Springs. Ayala had previously worked as a dishwasher at El Mirador Hotel.

Eves’ older cousin, Vera Prieto Wall, who was 87 at the time of this writing, remembers that Torney Hospital was not only used to treat U.S. servicemen, but wounded Italian and German prisoners of war who were captured overseas.

“I used to hear my dad talk about them,” Prieto recalled. “The Italian prisoners were allowed to work in the yard of the hospital. I’m not sure if they were paid. They were also allowed to leave and walk around town. They wore a uniform, and on one side of their arms, they had an emblem that said they were prisoners. Some of the Italian American families in town would make dinner for them. But never the Germans. The Germans were always under lock and key.”

But while Prieto may remember German POWs facing much tighter scrutiny, some of them did escape Torney General Hospital — at least briefly.

The Los Angeles Times documented the presence of “Nazi” POWs in Palm Springs, including a 1946 incident when two “Nazis” escaped Torney General Hospital and took a tour of the bars along Palm Canyon Drive.

“Escaped Nazis Tour Night Spots in Palm Springs” was the headline topping an April 15, 1946, Los Angeles Times report, which documented one such incident — nearly one year after the end of World War II. But German POWs were still being held at the hospital.

“Two German prisoners of war, who slipped out of the stockade at Torney General Hospital and spent last night on a tour of night spots here were recaptured by military police early today after the midnight closing of the bars,” the Times wrote. “To cocktail bar acquaintances, the pair explained their heavy accent by saying they were natives of Sweden. They were about to enter the car of one of these acquaintances when the M.P.s caught up with them.”