The beautiful Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida, was known as Ream General Hospital from 1942 to 1944 when the property was taken over by the U. S. Army. Not many people know that little piece of WWII trivia. My father was stationed there in 1944 as a rehab specialist and my parents told us stories about their time in Florida. We visited the hotel one summer in the 1950’s. It was closed for the season and we were able to walk around on the grounds. I doubt anyone could do that now without getting a room.
If you search online you can find out the basic facts about Ream General and the Breakers Hotel, but not much detail. My parents saved some papers and mementos from the war era and in searching through them I came across some interesting information not available online about the Breakers Hotel and its short stint in the Army.
One of the documents I found was a musical program for the Ream General Hospital Orchestra. During WWII even musicians served in the military and many orchestras were organized for entertainment. The orchestra program I found gives a brief biography of the orchestra leaders and lists each orchestra member and who they had played with. This was the era of the big bands and these musicians had played with some of the best, such as Artie Shaw, Paul Whiteman, and Woody Herman. The men behind the program were Lt. George L. Walker, Special Services Officer and Director of Athletics and Recreation, PFC Vick Knight, writer and producer, Pvt. Ted Klages, arranger and conductor, and PFC Howard Determan, dance band conductor. They performed a variety numbers from a “Show Boat” medley by Jerome Kern to a violin solo of “Estrellita” to a saxophone solo of “Body and Soul” by the previously mentioned Howard Determan to a Dixieland number called “The Blues.” Some of the other numbers were “Moonglow,” “Minuet in G,” “GI Jive,” Begin the Beguine,” the “Anvil Chorus,” and “Texas Polka” written by Vick Knight. An autographed copy of the sheet music for “Texas Polka” is in my parents papers. The finale was a service medley of “Marines Hymn,” “You’re in the Army Now,” “The Caissons Go Rolling Along,” “Anchors Aweigh” and “Army Air Corp Song.” It must have been quite a show.
In the papers are newspaper articles about Ream General that reflect the opposition to closing the hospital and turning the hotel back over to its owners. The War Department was accused of yielding to pressure from the Florida East Coast Railroad and hotel interests who wanted paying customers utilizing the hotel rather than wounded soldiers. A spread in the PM Daily Picture Magazine on March 27, 1944, includes an editorial by I. F. Stone entitled “Keep the Breakers for a Hospital Until Our War Casualties Are Known.” Mr Stone complains of the bureaucracy closing the hospital when its occupancy had increased from 700 to 1,000 patients between January and March. He points out that the facility which specialized in treatment of facial, head and nerve injuries and neuropsychiatric cases had a unique combination of special medical facilities and year-round sunshine that could not be equalled. Everyone expected the Allies to open another front in Europe and Mr. Stone proposed keeping the hospital open until the Army had a better idea of how many casualties to expect.
Another article, “Davies Gives Estate as GI’s Face Breakers Ouster,” tells of Former Ambassador and Mrs. Joseph E. Davies placing their famous Palm Beach estate, Mar-A-Lago, at the disposal of wounded soldiers being treated at the Breakers Hotel. As stated in the article several other Palm Beach property owners and some prominent physicians protested the reversion of the hotel to the railroad and hotel interest by sending telegrams to Senator Harry S. Truman (Remember this was in March 1944, months before the Democrat was put on the ticket as Roosevelt’s Vice President).
This same article included a triple-page spread of photos. They include an operating room and a series of photos of doctors making a mould of a patient’s damaged face to facilitate plastic surgery. Other pictures show men exercising on one of the hotel patios, soldiers on crutches walking the grounds and lounging on the Breakers’ “fabulous fountain” and the once sunny promenade converted to a modern dental clinic shielded by black-out curtains. Shots of famous Palm Beach residents Gloria Baker Topping and Lucille Vanderbilt of the Red Cross and Margaret Emerson, hospital “Grey Lady,” join pictures of patients in the exercise room and on the beach. A headline above the photos reads “Palm Beach’s Best People Want GI’s to Stay.”
A final newspaper article dated August 22 is headed “Army Scored for Abandoning Hotel.” It states “The Senate War Investigating Committee declared the Army’s original acquisition of the luxurious Breakers Hotel, Palm Beach, Fla., was “high-handed and arbitrary” and its recent decision to abandon the property is “not justified by the facts.” It continues “The Army has announced that the hotel, now being used as the Ream General Hospital, will be abandoned on September 1 and returned to the owners by December 14.” The conclusion seems to have been that although the decision to acquire the property was flawed, the decision to abandon it was worse. The Army stated that “to replace the hospital beds it had placed in operation a barracks type hospital at Camp Atterbury, Ind. … which in location and general construction does not compare with the Breakers.”
The controversy over the hotel/hospital sounds like one of the many issues we hear about today, Senate investigation and all. We don’t think of these type controversies in relation to World War II but reading newspapers of the day will reveal many such issues were hotly debated.
Some of my favorite war stories are about people helping other people. In Palm Beach the local residents rallied behind the wounded GI’s and the medical staff taking care of them. My father told of how these rich people graciously opened their homes to the soldiers. Many locals volunteered with the Red Cross, the Grey Ladies and in the canteen they set up for the military personnel. The Breakers Hotel proved to be an excellent place for a wounded soldier to recover.
I apologize for the quality of the photos. Newspaper pictures do not scan well, especially old ones. Below are photos of my dad while he was stationed at the Breakers/Ream General.