They were little more than pickup basketball games, but they were unlike any other game played before.
The 1947 contests, in a gym at the Navy hospital in Norco, changed the lives of the players — each one in a wheelchair — and helped alter the way we think about people with physical limitations.
They were games played by two teams of heroes — wounded soldiers, sailors and Marines — all recovering from paralysis or the loss of limbs from serving on the front lines of World War II. Wheelchair basketball this week is the centerpiece of the Paralympic Games going on in Tokyo — but in 1947 it was pretty unusual to have recovering military members participating in organized sports.
It began when Dr. Gerald H. Gray, a physician at the hospital then known as the U.S. Naval Hospital, Corona, visited the Birmingham VA hospital in Van Nuys in March 1947 and was impressed to find patients playing basketball from their wheelchairs.
After watching them soundly defeat a team of doctors in wheelchairs, Dr. Gray invited the Birmingham team to come to Norco to play his own patients — a team which then was organized only in his mind.
“We challenged the boys from Birmingham … and did we take a licking! But the boys were sold,” Dr. Gray said in an interview given to the Oakland Tribune, May 20, 1947.
After some quick practice, the Norco team — they christened themselves the Rolling Devils — inflicted a bit of revenge on Birmingham three days later. “We licked the pants off them,” said Dr. Gray.
Paraplegics had played basketball against able-bodied people riding in wheelchairs elsewhere, but the two games in Norco — March 18 and 21, 1947 — were the first-ever wheelchair games in which both teams were paraplegics, according to the National Wheelchair Basketball Association.
Both teams went on to play many games with other teams.
The Rolling Devils in the next two months defeated 22 straight opponents — mostly clubs or universities with able-bodied players playing in wheelchairs. The Birmingham team, the Flying Wheels, later went on a nationwide tour.
Norco’s Rolling Devils were led by a truly remarkable man — Marine Col. John Winterholler, a star basketball player at University of Wyoming before enlisting in the Marines in 1940. Captured by the Japanese in the Philippines at the start of World War II, he was part of the infamous Bataan Death March.
Barely surviving his ordeal as a POW, he was left paralyzed from the waist down. Winterholler regained his strength at Norco, and when Dr. Gray suggested forming a team, he embraced the thought of playing again.
Navy nurse and physical therapist Elizabeth Kinzer O’Farrell in her book “WWII … A Navy Nurse Remembers,” recalled that the medical staff at Norco was a bit hesitant to allow men with significant medical issues to play a potentially rugged sport. But the improvement seen in the players’ physical and mental well-being was immediate.
“Suddenly, we were seeing our patients beginning to feel like men, not … waiting around to be sent to a veterans hospital for the rest of their lives, or worse, home to become an object of pity and burden to their families,” wrote O’Farrell, who worked at Norco in 1947 and 1948.
“The patients seemed more confident, as though they had somehow proved to themselves if not yet to anyone else that they could succeed at something, and that just maybe if they really tried they might be able to make some kind of life for themselves.”
Even just watching fellow wounded men involved in such rigorous activity was an inspiration to many.
Dr. Gray said one Marine who had been shot and paralyzed in the battle at Iwo Jima arrived at Norco overwhelmingly depressed.
“He laid motionless in bed and when anyone approached he covered his head,” Dr. Gray told the Tribune. “He didn’t talk, he didn’t smile, but once he had played basketball.”
It took a while but “talk of the game got him down to the gym where he watched from the sidelines. The ball felt pretty good when he picked it up. He tossed one toward the basket. It went in,” said Dr. Gray.
A breakthrough had been achieved. That Marine was later released to his home from the hospital. Gray said he had then become “a fast-talking, free and easy fellow who will be able to make his way over the tough places.”
“It was indeed a historic game,” wrote Armand Thiboutot, author of “Wheelchairs Can Jump, A History,” about the 1947 games at Norco. “This pioneering match swiftly led to the formation, in 1948, of the National Wheelchair Basketball Association. The NWBA now provides dedicated administrative support to more than 200 teams, children and adults, as well as U.S. veterans injured in recent conflicts.”
A national wheelchair basketball tournament was first held in 1948, and the sport first appeared in the Olympic Games in Rome in 1960. More than 4,000 athletes are competing in a variety of sports at the Paralympics underway now in Tokyo.
“At first, wheelchair sports were shocking to many people, said David Davis, author of the recently released book, “Wheels of Courage: How Paralyzed Veterans from World War II Invented Wheelchair Sports, Fought for Disability Rights and Inspired a Nation.”
“If you were in a wheelchair you were pretty much stuck at home, or in an institution,” he said in an article last November in the New Orleans Times-Picayune. “The president (Franklin Roosevelt) got around in a wheelchair but he did not let himself be photographed in a wheelchair.”
But playing basketball from a wheelchair “showed that they could participate in life,” said Davis, a Los Angeles-based writer.
He also pointed out that the sport helped pave the way for later passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act, bringing curb cuts, ADA bathrooms, ramps and railings and other improvements to assist everyone, whether permanently and temporarily physically limited.
In 2014 and 2016, in tribute to the role the Rolling Devils played in athletics, the city of Norco sponsored wheelchair basketball tournaments in the gym in which those first two games were played in 1947.
I got a note from reader Andy McCue, following our earlier column on the naval hospital at Norco. He pointed out that one of the thousands of World War II patients treated at the hospital was baseball owner and sports promoter Bill Veeck.
Veeck, future owner of the Chicago White Sox, Cleveland Indians and the St. Louis Browns, was a 29-year-old Marine in the Pacific battle at Bougainville when his leg was badly damaged by a recoiling anti-aircraft gun.
He was sent to the hospital at Norco where he undertook the first of more than 30 operations for both bone damage and infections. He used an artificial leg for the rest of his life.
While a patient at Norco and still owner of the then-minor-league Milwaukee Brewers, he reportedly stayed busy negotiating contracts for his team and was rumored to be in the market for buying the White Sox, which he denied, according to news accounts.
After being released from Norco, he bought the Indians in 1947 and later signed the first African American — Larry Doby — to play in the American League.
Veeck, who died in 1987, was inducted into Baseball’s Hall of Fame in 1991.
Cool help needed
Upland’s Cooper Museum has a broken air conditioning unit that prevents it from reopening until it can be replaced.
The museum is seeking donations to fund this drive for cool air. Fully tax-deductible checks can be sent to the museum at 217 E. A St., Upland 91786, or go to www.coopermuseum.org/help.
Joe Blackstock writes on Inland Empire history. He can be reached at email@example.com or Twitter @JoeBlackstock. Check out some of our columns of the past at Inland Empire Stories on Facebook at www.facebook.com/IEHistory
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