In World War I the United States Army expanded from approximately 120,000 men to 4 million, and it needed more hospital capacity to support the troops. With many priorities, the service waited until late 1917 to expand the General Hospital system (hospitals at posts were expanded as troop numbers rose). During this time, epidemics of childhood diseases were spreading through the units due to the many recruits from rural backgrounds. In December 1917 Col. Charles Lynch (surgeon of the Southern Department, headquartered in San Antonio) had overflowing hospitals. He asked the American Red Cross to take care of some convalescents, but he also looked for a convalescent hospital and sent an officer to Corpus Christi to look at options.
The Corpus Beach Hotel had opened in 1909, and by 1917 it had been closed for three years and “was about the dirtiest place one would care to see,” yet the U. S. Army was content with the basic facilities, and on March 1, 1918, the hotel was leased for $6000 a year. The Commission on Training Camp Activities, a quasi-government body that checked on red-light districts, saloons, and other insalubrious diversions, had given Corpus a “clean bill of health,” and the city public health department had shown low disease rates in the city. Texas politicians had also urged the army to lease the hotel.
The U. S. Army inventoried the owners’ property, hastily staffed and equipped the building as a hospital, and opened it with 100 beds in April 1918. With no additional land for hospital expansion, the facility never had large numbers of patients, about 250 at maximum. It operated as a convalescent hospital, although titled a general hospital and designated General Hospital No. 15 (GH15). Matching the low-acuity patients, the medical staff was small and had no rehabilitation personnel. During the summer of 1918 they worked on facilities and treated an average of 200 convalescent patients. The American Red Cross, then a paramilitary organization to support the military medical departments, provided all kinds of supplies—from paint to paper cups, bathing suits, rags, oil cloth, paper napkins, dish towels, and even medicinal whiskey.
Through the spring and summer of 1918 convalescents from army hospitals throughout Texas arrived. The convalescents were generally healthy; only five died in 1918, and fourteen were discharged as unfit for further service. The overwhelming majority were returned to duty. Treatment was generally outdoors exercises. A graduated exercise program toughened the men up for their return to duty and to reduce the risk of re-injury. To encourage participation, men were not allowed their uniforms when they were bed patients. The ward surgeon decided what exercises were needed, and an Athletic Officer oversaw the exercise regimen until the man recuperated. The hospital hosted three movies and two dances a week, and weekly boat rides in the summer. Other activities included a sports day, and local residents were asked to volunteer their cars to take soldiers on rides. Men on pass were not allowed to visit “the restricted district” or they would not get passes in the future. Maj. Fred Clark was the first commander, and Maj. Hew McMurdo replaced him on August 1, 1918, as Clark was judged an ineffective commander and administrator.
The influenza pandemic hit in early October. The hospital took in twenty-two patients from the Fourth Field Artillery, which was training at Camp Scurry (just outside Corpus Christi), and on October 3 was quarantined because influenza was prevalent in Corpus. Everyone was advised about personal hygiene (covering your cough, not spitting), and anyone who thought they were sick was told to report to the Officer of the Day. In five weeks, the epidemic was over. Out of the sixty-four patients that were treated, only one died, and on November 8 the quarantine was lifted. The quarantine could not have been complete, for food still came to the hotel, garbage was sold to a pig farmer, and wool winter uniforms arrived. Personnel were also transferred, both to help with the influenza and to go to France. Another wave of the flu, faster and more lethal, hit in January 1919. The first case was on January 1, the last on January 28, and four of sixty-two patients died. Treatment was limited, because therapeutic options were limited at the time. Patients were isolated, everyone was masked, clothes and dishes were sterilized, and hypodermic injections of camphorated oil were given to patients who had a fever of 102 degrees or more.
On November 11, 1918, the Armistice brought an end to the fighting, and Texas politicians immediately urged the army to keep the hospital open because of the economic impact. However, the army had many hospitals in the South. GH15 was small with relatively large overhead, and there were few troops in the area, so it was slated to close.
On January 23, 1919, the first wounded patients arrived—twenty-four men, “practically all Texans” from the Thirty-sixth Division, who had been wounded in October 1918, when the division was in action. They had recuperated sufficiently for the hospital ship transit of the Atlantic and were shipped to Corpus Christi for final convalescence before discharge. More wounded, including two African-Americans, both Texans, arrived until late February. While the U. S. Army was segregated, army hospitals generally were not. Wounded arrived until February 26, 1919, when the army decided to close the hospital. The war was over, the number of patients was now finite, and many leased facilities were being identified for closure in the coming months. The flow of patients reversed, and patients left the convalescent hospital and went back to posts, mainly Fort Sam Houston. The base hospital there had more staff as well as specialists, so patients would receive better care before they were discharged. On February 28, 1919, all remaining patients were moved to San Antonio.
Once the closure was announced, Corpus interest groups contacted the Texas legislators who again pressured the U. S. Army to keep the hospital open. The army had a consistent answer: GH15 was too small and inefficient, and there were 40,000 empty beds in other hospitals. The government continued to operate the facility as a hospital, but the army transferred it to the United States Public Health Service (PHS), which was responsible for veterans’ healthcare before the Veterans Bureau was formed. The army left a caretaker party (eventually only six soldiers) to handle the official transfer over to the PHS on May 31, 1919. The army’s final act was shipping 119 pounds of medical records to the Medical Records Section in Washington, D. C., on June 9, 1919.
The PHS ran the hospital through the hurricane of September 14–15, 1919. The hurricane wrecked the hospital, but the PHS persevered and purchased the remaining building (singular) and 4.5 acres on June 7, 1920, for $120,000, and rebuilt. Reconstruction was completed in 1922, and the PHS ran the hospital until 1927, when they sold it and it resumed operation as a hotel (The Breakers) until 1970.
During its operation, GH15 treated a total of 1,148 patients, of whom 10 died.